Vikings stake claim atop Big Sky Conference

Twenty-four hours after the Waterford crystal ball dropped to ring in the new year in New York, the men’s basketball team (9-4, 1-0 Big Sky) rang in the Big Sky season and what promises to be a new era of Viking basketball by dropping the Weber State Wildcats (4-8, 0-1) to a 73-62 loss.

Saturday’s victory extended PSU’s winning streak to five games and gave the team an early leg up in conference play. Playing the first game of the conference season on New Year’s Day also gave the Vikings center stage and they didn’t miss the opportunity to impress.

"We wanted to send a message that we’re serious," senior forward Seamus Boxley said.

Boxley helped send the message by dominating the anticipated showdown with fellow Big Sky star Lance Allred. Allred, the reigning Big Sky Player of the Week and a preseason pick for all-conference center, came in leading the conference in rebounding and third in scoring but was frustrated by the tenacious Viking defense. He finished with 20 points and 11 rebounds but had numerous shots blocked and looked helpless on the defensive end as Boxley scored 25 points to go with his nine rebounds.

A Boxley free-throw gave the Vikings a 33-32 lead early in the second half and they never looked back. Unlike last year’s team, which struggled to hold leads and put teams away, Saturday’s win was one of many games this year where PSU played with the swagger of a team that knows it should win.

"Right now our team is feeling really confident," point guard Will Funn said after another stellar night. "We feel like we’re the best team in the Big Sky Conference."

If they are the best team in the conference, much of the credit goes to Funn. Saturday night he had a career-high 12 assists to only two turnovers and ignited numerous fastbreaks with his defensive pressure.

So far this year the Vikings have thrived on a defense-fueled fastbreak offense, and Saturday was no different despite a slow start. An energy-lacking Viking squad let the Wildcats dominate the boards in the first half (20-11) and paid the price in a stagnant half-court offense that produced no fast break or second chance points.

Trailing 28-27, Head Coach Heath Schroyer used halftime to stress the importance of being the aggressor, knowing that PSU’s successes have come when they take charge. "I thought that Weber was putting us on our heels defensively. We wanted to get up on our toes and force the tempo a little bit," he said.

Blake Walker set the aggressive tone Schroyer sought and brought the crowd to its feet when he skied above the rim to annihilate what looked to be a sure dunk by Allred at the start of the second half. Everyone else got in on the block party too and by the end of the night the team had set a new record with 10 blocks.

The Vikings will need to remain the aggressor should they hope to continue their preseason success during conference play. As nice as a 9-4 record looks, the Vikings have yet to beat a Division-One opponent with a winning record. The combined record of the seven D-1 opponents they have defeated is an underwhelming 22-52, while the four teams that beat PSU are 39-14.

Normally that would be a red flag, but the rest of PSU’s games come against Big Sky Conference opponents who haven’t fared much better. To date, the other seven teams in the conference are a combined 20 games under .500; only Northern Arizona has a winning record (7-6).

However, the Vikings are well aware that conference play is a different game. Everybody knows everybody. Tricks that worked in the preseason won’t work anymore. Weaknesses that slid by unnoticed will be exposed. In the end, only the best team will be left standing.

Since no other Big Sky conference games have been played Saturday’s win left PSU in first place somewhat by default, but Blake Walker suggested Vikings fans should get used to seeing PSU in first place.

"We know what it takes to win," he said. "We’re going to get better every day until you see that banner in the Stott Center."