Tallahassee takes down conference rival Northwest Florida, 55-52, to reach semifinals
By George Watson
LUBBOCK, Texas – The fifth one was going to be a charm for someone.
No. 11 Tallahassee Community College and No. 14 Northwest Florida State had split the four previous meetings between the FCSSA Panhandle Conference rivals during the regular season, which included Tallahassee winning the play-in game into the Region VII tournament. So there were not secrets when the two met in the quarterfinals of the NJCAA Division I Women’s National Basketball Tournament Thursday night at the Rip Griffin Center.
And the game played out just that way, with two teams battling back and forth like everything was riding on every possession. In the end, a 12-0 run by Tallahassee midway through the third quarter and some key free throws and defensive stops down the stretch was enough to send the Lady Eagles into the semifinals with a 55-52 win over the Raiders.
“I expected it to be a low-scoring game, a bloodbath,” Tallahassee head coach Franqua “Q” Bedell said. “Two people that know each other like twins, almost. It was a game of frustration, because I didn’t think we played our very best, but the you’re excited because the kids were strong enough and tough enough to pull out a win.
“I didn’t think we played our best, but we found a way, and this is what this team keeps showing us. They’re resilient and keep finding a way.”
The Lady Eagles, however, don’t have time to relax as now they must face Panhandle Conference champion and two-time defending national champion Gulf Coast State in the semifinals at 7 p.m. on Friday. Tallahassee dropped all three meetings with the Lady Commodores, two of them by at least 16 points.
“We’re going to have to be much more disciplined and much cleaner in our execution, our mindset and our thinking, or we’re going to get bit in the butt if we do that against Gulf Coast,” Bedell said. “I tell people all the time I feel like they are the UConn of junior college basketball right now and one of the big things is we have to try to figure out how to slay the dragon or we’re definitely going to be David.”
Trailing 32-24 three minutes into the third quarter after Georgia Gayle drained the first of her three 3-pointers, the Lady Eagles (27-6) took control by scoring the next 12 points. Mari Hill sparked the run with a 3-pointer, then Nakiah Black helped put Tallahassee out front with back-to-back threes that led to a 36-32 lead with 2:04 left in the third quarter.
Black, who finished with a game-high 20 points off the bench for the Lady Eagles, hit her third trey less than two minutes into the fourth quarter to give Tallahassee its biggest lead of the game at 45-36. Gayle hit consecutive shots from behind the arc over the next two minutes to pull Northwest Florida (24-7) to within three at 45-42.
But the Raiders could never close the gap completely as Black hit her final 3-pointer with 40.9 seconds left and converted a pair of free throws seven seconds later to seal the win.
“Coach always says that as sophomores you have to lead your team, and that’s what I tried to do is take on his mentality,” Black said.
Black was the only player for Tallahassee to score in double figures while Leandra Echi and Trinity Baptiste led Northwest Florida with 13 points each and Gayle added 12.
Northwest Florida matched Tallahassee almost shot for shot, but a 17-5 disparity in offensive rebounds allowed Tallahassee to outscore Northwest Florida 15-2 in second-chance points, and the Raiders had too many miscues late in the game to overcome their deficit.
“We were inefficient with the ball,” Northwest Florida head coach Bart Walker said. “Once we finally got settled back in we started getting wide-open shots or getting the ball to the basket. You got through runs in the game, and they made a big run and got us down, but these ladies didn’t quit. They might have gotten us down nine or 10 but we got all the way back and had a two-point game and had a chance, but we made a mistake. That’s part of it.”
As one would expect in a game where the teams are meeting for the fifth time this season, the pace and execution was fairly ragged in the first half. Both teams shot a dismal 27.3 percent (3 for 11), including 0-for-3 from 3-point range. The difference through the first 10 minutes was the one free throw made by the Raiders.
It was Northwest Florida, however, that was able to pick up its pace better in the second quarter and get out to a 28-20 halftime lead. Leandra Echi scored all 10 of her first-half points in the second quarter as the Raiders built a 23-15 lead to the 3:37 mark of the period.
But Tallahassee countered with five straight points, three from Jamyra McChristine, who had eight first-half points total to lead the Lady Eagles, to pull to within 23-20 with just over a minute to play it the first half.
But Northwest Florida responded with four straight points to end the half and take the seven-point lead at the intermission, 27-20.