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Sore-Footed Larry Wants a Last Dance With the Matadors

Men's basketball: Senior, who briefly left team, leading the way in Northridge's bid for NCAA berth.

March 10, 2000|VINCE KOWALICK | TIMES STAFF WRITER

MISSOULA, Mont. — Andre Larry smiles broadly when he talks about getting to the Big Dance, player-speak for the NCAA men's basketball tournament.

Never mind that Larry's feet hurt. The 6-foot-9 senior forward for Cal State Northridge is nursing a sprained right ankle, a sprained big toe on his left foot, and a bunion--the results of a long, arduous season.

But better the pain in Larry's lower extremities than in his personal life.

If Northridge does advance to the NCAA tournament, Larry, a versatile and entertaining player, figures to lead the way. And he'll have all the more reason to kick up his heels.

Northridge (19-9) plays top-seeded Montana (17-10) tonight in a Big Sky Conference tournament semifinal at Montana's Adams Center. The winner will play for the Big Sky title Saturday night against either Eastern Washington or Northern Arizona, with the champion advancing the 64-team NCAA tournament.

Northridge has never won the Big Sky title in four years in the conference, and a berth in the NCAA tournament remains a lofty goal for a program in only its 10th season in Division I.

The Matadors have never beaten Montana on its home court, losing 73-70, in overtime this season.

Larry, who transferred from Oregon after his sophomore year, is in his final days of college basketball. Arguably the Matadors' best player, Larry intends to continue playing, possibly in Europe.

But before that, Larry said, he longs to help Northridge leave its mark.

"We're trying to turn some heads right now," Larry said. "To feel like I can help Northridge get to that level, that's a good feeling."

For Larry, it simply feels good to be back.

In January, Larry shocked Coach Bobby Braswell and teammates by abruptly leaving the team because of a family issue, only to return after two weeks. Larry declines to discuss the matter, but coaches and teammates are privy to his situation and express support.

"They understand my situation," Larry said. "I have a family that needs to be taken care of. Coach Braswell, being a family man, he understands that you have to do what you have to do."

Few figured on Larry's return, and the Matadors seemed doomed without their second-leading scorer.

"A lot of teams fall apart when they lose one of their best players," guard Markus Carr said. "Andre is, probably, the greatest player I've ever played with. Not a lot of guys can dunk like Andre can."

Larry missed three games and has slowly returned to form. He still ranks second on the team in scoring, averaging 13 points.

"Andre means a lot to this basketball team," Braswell said. "He causes matchup problems that cause teams to prepare for us differently. We're a lot smaller when Andre is not in our lineup. It's been a definite plus having him back."

Northridge was 2-1 in Larry's absence, defeating conference lightweights Sacramento State and Idaho State, but losing at Weber State, 113-92.

"It was a very chaotic period for us," Braswell said. "We went from being a solid team in every position to, maybe, changing our whole way of thinking of how we would defend and how we would do things. As much as you try to keep your guys on track, it was hard. It's taken us a while to get back where we need to be."

Player defections often crush team chemistry. But Larry's departure and return were greeted with understanding. Still, players held a meeting to discuss his impending return.

"When he left, everybody supported him," Carr said. "That was our first reaction."

On Wednesday, Larry gave a glimpse of what might have been had he played in Northridge's loss at Weber State. He scored 20 points, hitting four of six three-point shots, and Northridge defeated the Wildcats, 73-68, in the tournament's opening round.

Larry's second three-pointer tied the score, 17-17. Moments later, his authoritative dunk gave the Matadors a 19-17 lead. He scored 10 points in each half.'

"I don't think we would have won without Andre," guard Carl Holmes said.

Larry's dunks have inspired Northridge. He leads the Matadors with 34 this season, including five in one game.

His performance against Weber State was among Larry's best of the season, rivaling his 23-point outing in a 79-77 victory at Oregon against his former team.

Larry scored 19 points in an overtime loss at Montana on Feb. 17, his second game back. But he suffered a sprained ankle after a dunk, an injury that still bothers him.

But he still wants to dance.

BIG SKY TOURNAMENT

Cal State Northridge

vs.

Montana

Men's Semifinal Game

Tonight, 8:30

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