Northwest Florida rallies in fourth quarter to oust Three Rivers, reach program’s first title game
LUBBOCK, Texas – There was no panic, not frustration, and not even an inspirational speech on the bench for the Northwest Florida State College women’s basketball team going into the fourth quarter of its game on Friday against Three Rivers College.
There certainly could have, understandably, been a little bit of all of that considering how things had deteriorated for the Raiders in the third quarter. The watched a six-point halftime lead disintegrate into a five-point deficit with 10 minutes left to make something happen.
So, instead of panic or frustration, there was determination and heart, and Northwest Florida willed itself into one more game for all the marbles.
Masengo Mutanda scored eight of her game-high 18 points in the final period, and Northwest Florida used a 15-3 run at the start of the period to regain the lead, and its composure, and hold off Three Rivers for a 71-63 victory in the semifinals of the NJCAA Division I Women’s Basketball National Championship at the Rip Griffin Center.
“We just needed to slow down a little bit and took care of the basketball,” Raiders head coach Bart Walker said. “We had some really bad turnovers and some bad shots, but this team just willed it to win, and they wanted it. I think we finally started finding the seams, getting the ball on the baseline and getting the extra pass, and not turning it over. And we had some people step up and made some shots. I think they just finally dug in and went after it.”
With the win, the Raiders (23-2) will play for the school’s first national title when they meet either Trinity Valley or Panhandle Conference rival Chipola at 3 p.m. on Saturday. The Raiders are in this position because of a complete team effort.
Three Rivers (24-1) did a good job defensively on the Raiders’ top two scorers, forwards Chanaya Pinto and Last-Tear Poa. Pinto finished with 12 points, but the sharpshooting Poa, who had 24 points in Northwest Florida’s quarterfinal win on Thursday, had just eight points and was 2 of 5 from 3-point range.
Enter Mutanda, who put the team on her back and carried them into the finals. Her 3-pointer from the right wing with 6:31 to play in the game capped a 9-0 run – all 3-pointers – and put the Raiders back in front 56-54. She then hit another to cap the 15-3 run and put the Raiders up for good at 63-57.
But she wasn’t alone. Ines Piper scored 8 of her 11 points down the stretch, including going 4-for-4 from the free-throw line and a putback on an offensive rebound with 19.4 to seal the victory.
“They’ve done that all year,” Walker said. “You want your big-time players to produce, but when you have multiple weapons and the kids finally feel confident and make their shots and see it go in, it’s fun to watch.”
Three Rivers, which came into the tournament as the overall No. 9 seed, had all the momentum going into the fourth quarter after a 14-3 run put the Lady Raiders up 51-46 with 40 seconds left in the period, and they took a 52-47 lead into the break.
But after Jamiyah Thomas hit two free throws to open the quarter, the Lady Raiders would go scoreless for the next three minutes and hit just one basket in the first 6:17 of the period, allowing Northwest Florida to take control and pull away for the win.
“We said right before the horn blew that as bad as we played, we were only down four,” Walker said. “We just had to go suck it up and go play. We had 20-plus turnover and missed all those free throws early, and we got a bad taste in our mouths. But they just went and got it, went and got the game.”
Pinto finished with 12 points for the Raiders and Shelbee Brown added 11 in the winning effort.
Joi Montgomery led Three Rivers with 14 points while Myia Yelder and Hya Haywood added 12 each.
Northwest Florida was aggressive from the start of the game, but the aggression did not translate into much of a lead. The Raiders led 9-5 through the first 6 ½ minutes of the game but it could have been much more. They went to the free-throw line eight times in that span but were just 2-for-8, and that allowed Three Rivers to hang around.
The Lady Raiders took advantage by closing the first quarter on an 8-2 run, the last four points coming from Haywood, who led Three Rivers with nine first-half points. That run put the Lady Raiders up 13-11 at the end of the first quarter, but it didn’t last long.
Northwest Florida shot an incredible 73.3 percent (11 of 15) in the second quarter, constantly getting either looks under the basket or short jumpers. Pinto had eight of her 12 first-half points in the period, including a pair of mid-range jumpers to go with her work in the paint.
Pinto’s 15-foot jumper at the 7:30 mark, which came after Brown had converted a three-point play, put the Raiders up 18-15. A few minutes later, Nashani Gilbert gave the Raiders their biggest lead of the first half when she drained a 3-pointe from the right wing to make it 27-22 Northwest Florida.
Three Rivers would pull to within 29-27 with 1:55 to play in the half, but Northwest Florida, which shot 65.2 percent from the floor for the first half and outrebounded Three Rivers 21-9, closed the first half with six of the final eight points, including a transition layup from Brown with 3.5 seconds left to put the Raiders up 35-29 at the intermission.