NICEVILLE — Coach Butch Pierre makes no bones about it: The Northwest Florida State men’s basketball team is improving, but the Raiders still haven’t arrived yet.
A 68-61 loss to Chipola on Wednesday night at The Arena in Niceville, the Raiders’ fifth straight, is evidence enough.
NWF State (12-9 overall, 0-5 Panhandle Conference) outshot the Indians 48% to 39%. It out-assisted 11 to 8. It even led by three at halftime, but when crunch time came, Chipola (14-7, 2-3) made the plays the Raiders couldn’t.
"We fought like hell," Pierre said. "But we played that game for 30 minutes. We just gotta hit a couple of timely baskets. I thought the guys did a good job; they really competed, but it’s just timely scoring.
"We just gotta step up and make the plays."
For a stretch, it seemed like the Raiders just might.
With eight minutes left, freshman guard Jourdan Smith splashed home a 3 from the wing that finally ended a seven-minute scoring drought and cut the Indians’ lead to 57-51. Over the next three minutes, sophomore forward Anthony Mason poured in five unanswered points, two baskets coming in the teeth of Chipola’s defense, to tie the game 57-57 with four minutes left.
That should have been momentum enough to carry NWF State to its first Panhandle Conference victory, but the Raiders converted just one more field goal the rest of the way, sophomore Shakwon Barrett’s driving layup with 15 seconds left.
Barrett finished with a team-best 17 points and three assists.
"We just gotta be able to make some shots," Pierre said. "The shots were there, and we defended … but late game, you get a little bit of momentum, you gotta make a shot. It helps you on the defensive end, and it helps you with the next offensive play with young guys."
Still, the two weeks since the Raiders fell to Chipola on Jan. 8 in Marianna have made a tangible difference.
NWF State trailed the Indians by 11 points at halftime and lost by 28 when the two met earlier in January. The Raiders shot just 31.7%, turned the ball over 12 times and finished with just six assists in that game.
By halftime Wednesday, NWF State was outshooting Chipola 57.1% to 40.5%, had eight assists — including an alley-oop pass to Mason — and a slim 38-35 lead.
"We’re definitely getting better," Pierre said. "I told the guys ‘We’re definitely getting better,’ but if we would’ve had this approach, attitude and development a month ago, we would win these games.
"It took a little longer than I expected, but that’s just the makeup of this team."
Up next, NWF State heads to Panama City for the season’s second tilt with Gulf Coast State (16-4, 3-1) at 4 p.m. Saturday. The Commodores topped the Raiders 85-82 on Jan. 4 behind Cameron Holden’s 41 points.