Fight night

Did you see the fight? That’s all I’ve been hearing about since Saturday’s nail-biting 93-92 OT win over Montana. Half the fans I’ve talked to don’t realize that the Vikings are now in the Big Sky tournament, but they remember that fight.

The Oregonian’s Vikings beat writer Norm Maves called the confrontation between Vikings guard Josh Neeley and Montana guard Kevin Criswell, and the ensuing mayhem “one of the wildest in PSU history.” Though the whole thing lasted a minute, Maves is dead on.

Covering the game for the Vanguard, I was sitting on press row when the incident began. The buzzer had just sounded and I was collecting my notes and trying to beat the crowd to the exit so I could make my way down to conduct postgame interviews. It is appropriate to say at this point, all hell broke loose.

I didn’t see what started the brawl. However, the official line reads that Neeley, who had secured the ball as time expired, chucked it at Criswell’s head (though Neeley denied it after the game). Criswell, who to my knowledge doesn’t enjoy things being chucked at his head, basketball or otherwise, reacted like anyone who has just lost a close game would. He flipped out and charged Neeley down. This I did see.

Neeley stood his ground but Criswell wouldn’t get to him. The Vikings’ 6’11” sophomore center Scott Morrison intercepted the 6’3″ Criswell, apparently throwing a punch at the Montana guard before being pulled away, screaming.

I didn’t see a punch thrown (though I thought that Morrison got an elbow in), though after Big Sky officials reviewed video footage they found enough evidence to suspend Morrison for Saturday’s conference tournament game against Eastern Washington.

After Morrison and Criswell collided, both team’s benches raced to help as referees, athletic department officials and security attempted to separate the mass of angry athletes and fans gathering at center court. Most fans were too shocked to do anything, but several fans sitting along the far baseline were involved.

Both sides screamed at each other, jostling and bumping chests but there were no further punches thrown and the incident was soon over. Montana players retreated to the locker room and the fans left without further incident. What could have been extremely ugly wasn’t, and the credit for that goes directly to the swift response of the refs and event staff.

So why did this happen? The game had been physical the entire afternoon. Juma Kamara had been issued a technical foul earlier for bumping chests and shouting at Montana’s Virgil Mathews after Ryan Sommer went down hard on a jump ball call. Montana coach Larry Krystkowiak was also T’d up after berating the officials. It was just a nasty game and the Vikings, desperate for a win on “senior night,” were out for blood.

Ultimately, I’m okay with the fight and I’m glad it happened. This campus is talking more now about the basketball team than they have since last year. No one was hurt and only Morrison got issued a suspension, though both he and Neeley were also retroactively kicked out of Saturday’s game.

To be honest, I hope this incident lights a fire under the collective Vikings’ rear, because they face a tough Eastern Washington team Saturday that they have yet to beat this year. Now they’ll be down a player, but they’ve displayed a passion that seems to have been missing all year long.

The Vikings take on EWU in Cheney, Wash., with tip-off scheduled for 7 p.m.