NICEVILLE — With 14.5 seconds left in overtime and the score deadlocked at 55, Bart Walker turned toward P-Nut Payton in the huddle.
"If you get it," Walker told his sophomore guard, "We’re going flat, and you’re gonna make a shot."
Hands on their hips, sweat dripping to the hardwood floor beneath their worn sneakers, the Raiders, ranked fifth in the country, were gassed. From start to finish, Saturday night’s Region VIII championship game had been a dogfight. No. 6 Gulf Coast, winners of four straight state titles wouldn’t go quietly in legendary coach Roonie Scovel’s final season at the helm.
But if anyone could still make a play, Walker reasoned, it was Payton.
Payton who attended Fort Walton Beach High School just down the road. Who had won a national championship with Commodores just a year ago and transferred "home" to Northwest Florida State in the offseason. Who wore the No. 24 on her back like a certain NBA legend who made a name for himself in moments just like these.
Shoulders slung low at the top of the arc, Payton crossed over to her left, racing by Commodore freshman Ra’Shara Simmons into the low post. Freshman forward Fatou Bagate tried to meet her, but Payton was too quick, spinning over her right shoulder and crossing to her left again.
In just three moves, Payton was at the basket laying the ball in gently — victoriously — with her right hand.
The Arena, opened in 2011 and hosting its first Region VIII tournament, erupted. Payton’s teammates flew into the air.
The Raiders had done it. For the first time since 1996, the NWF State women’s basketball team had claimed the FCCAA title with a 57-55 victory against rival Gulf Coast.
P-Nut Payton with two seconds left. Raiders up 57-55. pic.twitter.com/HUuJECLLpC— Sam Grubenhoff (@SamGrubenhoff) March 8, 2020
Walker, who returned to Northwest Florida in 2017 after coaching the Raiders from 2008-10, had to hold back tears.
"It feels extraordinary," he said. "A lot of work went into this with the girls. We started in June, and I’m glad these young ladies got what they deserved because they worked hard for it."
Raiders win 57-55. For the first time since 1996, NWF State has won the state championship pic.twitter.com/vQxEVkeH9G— Sam Grubenhoff (@SamGrubenhoff) March 8, 2020
That investment paid out Saturday. Gulf Coast (23-5 overall) led 13-11 after one and 19-17 at the half; the Raiders (27-4) held a lead for just three of the game’s first 20 minutes, limited to just 38.5% shooting with eight turnovers, the Commodores’ frustrating defense offering unwelcome flashbacks to 2019’s four-point state title loss in Ocala.
Walker needed more effort, he said. "Maximum effort."
Payton and freshman forward Chanaya Pinto delivered, the pair scoring seven unanswered to take a 24-23 lead early in the third quarter and prompt the gym’s DJ to queue up "Don’t Stop Believin’" on the PA system.
Gulf Coast forward D’Asia Gregg would stop the run with an elbow jumper, but NWF State sophomore Rayven Peeples answered immediately with bucket in the paint.
The Raiders wouldn’t trail again until overtime, though they surrendered a 48-48 tie as time expired, Simmons putback prayer finding nylon.
Gulf Coast ties it up at the buzzer 48-48. We have OT. pic.twitter.com/q0u49nNx6D— Sam Grubenhoff (@SamGrubenhoff) March 8, 2020
With only seconds before his team had to be back on the court, Walker kept his message simple.
"Hey, we got five more minutes," he said. "The most hungry team’s gonna win it right here."
The Raiders didn’t eat first in overtime, but they ate more and they ate last, scoring three at the charity stripe and six more in the paint — where they dominated 38-18 on Saturday night — to polish off the victory.
"I thought both teams laid everything they had out on the court," Walker said after as he watched his team cut down the net. "That’s all you can ask in a championship game is that everybody plays to their maximum effort … I don’t think it was the cleanest game played, but it was a great game and a great environment."
Coach @bartwalker32 has cut down the net. It’s official. The @NWF_Raiders are Region VIII champs. pic.twitter.com/s0H7MVVJBI— Sam Grubenhoff (@SamGrubenhoff) March 8, 2020
The savior, Payton finished her night with 10 points, one of just two Raiders to reach double figures. Peeples was the other, posting 24 points and eight rebounds en route to tournament MVP honors.
Gulf Coast sophomore Ahlana Smith led the Commodores with 19 points.
The Raiders entered the Region VIII tournament with their first outright Panhandle championship in 24 seasons, closing out conference play with a six-game win streak en route to a 9-3 finish before dominating No. 22 Eastern Florida State 77-54 on Thursday night; NWF State led by 20 points after just eight minutes. The Raiders then mounted a second straight victory by 20-plus on Friday, beating Central Florida 80-53 in the semifinal round, outrebounding the Patriots 51-20.
On the opposite side of the bracket, the Commodores rallied from down seven to beat Miami Dade College 71-64 in the semifinal round shortly before NWF State took the court Friday night for its matchup with Central Florida.
Gulf Coast got the better of the Raiders in two out of three matchups during the regular season, but NWF State held the series’ most recent victory entering Saturday’s game. After falling 78-66 on Jan. 4 at home and again 59-54 on Jan. 25 in Panama City, the Raiders won 63-49 on Feb. 8 at The Arena behind Pinto’s 25 points and nine rebounds on 8-of-14 shooting. Peeples and Payton finished with 19 points each, Peeples posting a double-double with 12 boards.
Up next, NWF State is bound for the NJCAA Women’s Tournament in Lubbock, Texas, where the Raiders advanced to the Elite Eight a year ago. Walker and Co. will find out whom their opponent is when the selection show airs at 10:30 a.m. Monday.
Until then, Walker plans to keep it simple.
"(We’re going to) get healthy," he said. "Get some rest and enjoy this the next day or two."
The Raiders earned it.