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Miracle man

Long Beach State's Nixon embraces role that has led to three game-winning shots in the last year

March 09, 2007|Peter Yoon | Times Staff Writer

Aaron Nixon would prefer that Long Beach State's games in the Big West Conference tournament don't come down to a game-winning shot, but if one does, he says he's ready and willing.

History shows he is quite able.

Nixon, a 6-foot-2, 220-pound senior guard for the 49ers, has made three last-second, game-winning shots in the last year. The most recent came Feb. 10 at UC Santa Barbara, where his three-point basket with 0.4 of a second left gave Long Beach State a 68-67 victory.

Earlier this season, he made a three-pointer from just inside half court as time expired for a 66-65 victory at Loyola Marymount. And one year ago from Saturday, in a conference tournament semifinal against UC Irvine, he made an off-balance three-pointer as time expired, lifting the 49ers to a 75-73 victory and into the championship game for the first time since 1995.

So, should the 49ers need some kind of miracle tonight in the semifinals at the Anaheim Convention Center, at least they have the miracle man on their side.

"I really hope it doesn't come to that," Nixon said. "I'd rather be up by eight or 18 or 80."

Clutch time is not the only time Nixon stands out. Conference coaches voted him Big West player of the year for leading the 49ers to their first regular-season conference title since 1996.

He averaged 18.4 points and earned conference player of the week honors five times, tying a conference record.

But clutch time is when Nixon truly shines. He scored 32 points Feb. 26 at Pacific in a victory that secured the regular-season conference title and he averaged 24.8 points over the last four games. Last year, he averaged 25.3 points in three conference tournament games.

Twice this season, Long Beach State faced UC Santa Barbara with first place on the line. The first time, he scored a career-high 35 points in a victory and the second time he made the game-winner in the final second.

"He's tough to stop," said Santa Barbara Coach Bob Williams. "He's a load physically. He can hit deep threes and then he's got a unique body where if he's having a poor shooting night, he can go inside and power you and get his points that way."

But it's from beyond the three-point arc -- way beyond sometimes -- where Nixon does much of his scoring.

His 73 three-pointers are fourth on the school's single-season list and he has made 28 of 57 (49.1%) three-point shots over the last eight games.

"It has a lot to do with confidence and wanting to be in those situations," Long Beach Coach Larry Reynolds said of Nixon's ability to rise in key situations. "A lot of people say they do, but they don't. Aaron does. He wants to have the ball when the game is on the line."

Nixon's knack for making the big shot dates to junior college, when he led San Bernardino Valley College to the 2005 state championship game by making a three-pointer that sent the game to overtime in a semifinal victory. As a high school player in Cleveland, Nixon said he remembered making only one game-winning shot.

But does he recall ever missing a shot with the game on the line?

"Nah."

"I'd remember too," he said. "I take that kind of thing hard. If I'm putting the game on my shoulders and we lose, it would stick with me for a week. The ones I make to win, I forget about it the next day."

Nixon was an all-state performer at San Bernardino Valley and the Sporting News chose him the top junior college sophomore in the nation. He was a third-team All-American at his first JC, Columbus State in Ohio, but came to California for a fresh start.

"I wasn't sure I was going to graduate from junior college," Nixon said, acknowledging an aversion to studying.

But when Reynolds was recruiting Nixon's Columbus State teammate, Shawn Hawkins, he discovered Nixon.

Nixon went to San Bernardino to get his grades in order, then came to Long Beach last season, when he averaged 14.7 points and showed he wasn't afraid to launch shots from as far as 30 feet.

He said he learned to stretch his range at an early age when his father would send him deeper and deeper beyond the arc each time he'd make a few shots.

Even when he's a little off, Nixon will take shots in crucial times. Against Loyola Marymount, Nixon was one for 12 shooting before making his game-winner. Before making the game-winner at Santa Barbara, he'd made only three of 13 shots.

"None of that matters to me when the game is on the line," Nixon said.

"When it's game time, my confidence is sky high. I want to be the one who steps up and takes the shot."

From now on, he might not get the chance. As word has spread about his late-game heroics, Reynolds said opponents have been double- and triple-teaming him just before halftime and near the ends of close games.

"Now it's going to be somebody else's turn because teams are making it difficult for him to get the ball in those situations," Reynolds said. "We're going to have to go to plan B, so I need to come up with a plan B."

That is, of course, unless plan A keeps working.

peter.yoon@latimes.com

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