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Big Sky Conference Basketball / Tournament

This Is No Act, Brother : Higginses Light Fire Under Matadors, Lead Northridge Basketball Out of Dark Ages

March 06, 1997|JEFF FLETCHER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

NORTHRIDGE — Derrick and Keith Higgins sat at the end of the Cal State Northridge bench last season, wearing street clothes and pained expressions, watching their teammates blunder through a 7-20 season.

It was like peering helplessly through a fence as someone kicks your dog. But they are on the other side of the fence now.

After Derrick, who had a broken foot, and Keith, a transfer from Colorado, used their redshirt seasons, both are starting for the Matadors. They are two of the reasons Northridge, which still doesn't win all the time, rarely gets kicked around these days.

More than their statistical accomplishments, the Higgins brothers have injected life into what was a limping Matador program.

Their quickness and aggressive play is evidenced by their battling for the school single-season record for steals. Keith has 68, Derrick 65.

Their high-flying dunks have brought once-docile crowds at Matador Gym to their feet and created an actual home-court advantage. Their fiery demeanor has sparked the team whenever it seemed drained.

"The thing I like most about them is their energy and enthusiasm," Coach Bobby Braswell said. "They are always running up and down the floor and making big plays, dunks and steals.

"And everyone feeds off that. If you think about some of the big runs we've had the last few games, one of them has been involved in some way to get us going."

The play of Keith, a senior forward, and Derrick, a junior guard, will be factors for Northridge in the Big Sky Conference tournament, which begins tonight with the Matadors (12-14) facing Montana State (16-13) at 6:05 p.m. at Northern Arizona's Walkup Skydome.

Northridge must win the tournament to finish with at least a .500 record. That's exactly what the Higginses are planning, to keep their streak alive. Neither has played on a losing team, dating to their days at Locke High.

"Everywhere the Higginses go, people are going to win," Keith said. "We have the fire."

*

"The Higgins Clan," as they called themselves when five of the family's six boys were playing, would hold court at the park near their home in Los Angeles.

Literally.

The All-Higgins team took on all comers at the park, where etiquette dictates that winners keep the court, losers go home.

"We stayed on all day," Derrick said with a smile. "We were park legends."

After Keith, 22, and Derrick, 21, played together at Locke, they took different paths. Keith, who wanted get out of Los Angeles, went to Bellevue (Wash.) Community College, just outside Seattle. Derrick stayed close to home, joining a powerhouse program at Los Angeles City College.

Keith transferred to Colorado, choosing the Buffaloes over higher-profile programs like Cincinnati and Seton Hall because he wanted to play right away. He started 26 of 28 games for Colorado in 1994-95 and led the Buffaloes with an average of 2.6 steals per game.

Meanwhile, Derrick was finishing his two-year stint at L.A. City by leading the state with a 69.5% shooting percentage.

After the 1994-95 season, Derrick signed with Northridge, turning down South Alabama and Southwest Texas State, because he wanted to stay in California. Keith also yearned to play near home after three years away. He left Colorado to join his brother at Northridge.

It was a happy reunion--for a couple of weeks.

The Matadors were barely into practice last season when a teammate stepped on Derrick's left foot, aggravating a stress fracture that would require surgery. It cost Derrick the season, and the Matadors their best defensive player.

While Derrick stood around at practice wearing a cast and shooting layups with a frustrated look on his face, Keith was swatting away shots, growling as he leaped over taller players for rebounds and throwing down dunks at every opportunity.

*

Both Higgins brothers have had moments when they carried Northridge's scoring for a half here and there. But neither Derrick's 10.9-point average or Keith's 8.4 tell the story of their value.

It starts with defense.

Throw a statistic sheet in front of them and the first thing they do is run their fingers toward the steals column to see who's ahead. Besides being one-two in the Big Sky and among the NCAA leaders, they have both broken the Northridge record for steals in a season.

"Anybody can put the ball in the basket," Keith said. "But getting steals, you've got to be smart. When you are watching films, you have to analyze [the opponent]. If you know what they are going to do, you have an advantage.

"A lot of times you have to set them up. Don't look for the ball, then they think they've got [an open man]. And then all of the sudden you step in front. You've got to play mind games with them on the court."

Said Braswell: "They've got great basketball sense, both of them. They really understand the game well. They have the basketball savvy that a lot of people just don't have."

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