The Middle Tennessee Blue Raiders gave the Vikings a heavy dose of reality Saturday night in Murfreesboro, Tenn. by handing them a one-sided 83-62 loss in non-conference play.
The loss snapped the Vikings’ six-game winning streak and raised questions about their ability to play outside the weak Big Sky Conference, but it did not hurt the team’s chances of winning Big Sky and making the NCAA tournament.
The odd cross-country trip in the midst of conference play came about as part of the Vikings’ participation in ESPN’s Bracketbuster Saturday. Before the season, ESPN invited 64 teams to play Feb. 19 with the promise that the best 22 would play in nationally-televised non-conference games hyped by ESPN as likely to determine which bubble teams make March Madness.
Any chance PSU had of making a televised game was undone by the weak schedule the Viks have played and the lack of respect for the Big Sky as a competitive conference. Only eight of the 330 teams in Division 1 have played a statistically easier schedule than PSU and the Big Sky was ranked 28th of all 32 D-1 conferences heading into the weekend.
In lieu of the lights of ESPN2, PSU had to lug itself across country on short rest to play a team it knew little about.
The lack of rest was apparent as the Viks missed 20 of their first 23 shots and quickly fell into a hole they would never dig out of. PSU trailed 38-26 at halftime and then helplessly watched MTSU run off an 18-4 run at the start of the second half that eerily resembled the 21-4 run PSU had used to down Idaho State two nights earlier.
The better-rested Blue Raiders wore down PSU’s already tied legs with a relentless press and confusing zone defenses on what is classically referred to as "just one of those nights."
MTSU juniors Fats Cuyler and Marcus Morrison each had career nights, with Cuyler tying his career-best with 17 points and Morrison scoring 19 points and pulling down eight rebounds.
Seamus Boxley was the only Vik to reach double figures. He finished with 18 points and 10 rebounds. PSU trailed by as many as 32, thanks to 37 percent shooting and a minus-14 rebounding deficit, its largest of the year.
Despite the bad loss, PSU actually widened its lead atop the Big Sky thanks to second-place Montana State’s 70-68 loss to Sac State in Sacramento. PSU left for Tennessee with a 1.5 game cushion and returned with a full two-game lead.