When Denver forward Chris Udofia and his teammates arrived at their gate at Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport on Friday afternoon, an unexpected sight immediately caught their attention.
Waiting for the same flight to Denver were the players and coaches from Middle Tennessee State, the Pioneers' opponent the following day.
"I couldn't believe it was happening," Udofia said with a chuckle on Saturday. "It was definitely a little strange. It really didn't build as much tension as we thought it would because everyone was pretty friendly, but at the same time it was definitely an awkward situation."
Neither Udofia nor his teammates had ever shared a flight with an opposing team before, but an unusual quirk in the Sun Belt League schedule made it possible. Denver played at Louisiana-Lafayette on Thursday night and flew from Lafayette to Dallas the next day to catch a connecting flight home, while Middle Tennessee State played at North Texas on Thursday night and booked the same flight out of Dallas to get to Denver.
Being on the same plane might not have been such an uncomfortable situation had the two Sun Belt League rivals not actually wound up interspersed among one-another. Udofia sat next to a Middle Tennessee State team manager, several of his teammates shared a row with opposing players and Denver coach Joe Scott had a middle seat in between two of the Blue Raiders' leading scorers.
"For the most part we kept to ourselves," Udofia said. "We tried to stay away from talking about basketball."
Denver ended up winning bragging rights the following day, breaking open a tight game in the final five minutes to emerge with a 75-60 victory. It was first-place Middle Tennessee State's first loss in Sun Belt League play and it damaged the Blue Raiders' chances to earn an at-large bid if they fail to win the conference tournament next month.
For a Denver team that expected to challenge Middle Tennessee State (21-4, 10-1) for the Sun Belt title entering the conference season, Saturday's win was a confidence boost. The Pioneers (17-7, 7-4) had dropped three of their last four games — all on the road — but behind a career high 27 points from Udofia on Saturday, they proved they're still a threat to win the league tournament.
"It was a huge win for us," Udofia said. "We'd made a name for ourselves in our area, but to do this on national television was big. We knew we had it in us, but it's good to know that in February, when it really matters, we're playing well."
Udofia hopes Denver never has to share a flight with its next opponent again, but the Pioneers now have experience in case it happens again.
"We're 1-0 doing it," Udofia said, laughing. "It worked out for us pretty well."