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NCAA BASKETBALL TOURNAMENT | LONG BEACH STATE REPORT

Darby enjoys 49ers' success

March 15, 2007|Peter Yoon | Times Staff Writer

Long Beach State has come a long way to make to the NCAA tournament, emerging from the depths of consecutive seasons in 2002-03 and 2003-04 when the 49ers went a combined 11-43 to a 24-7 record this season.

Nobody knows better than Louis Darby, a fifth-year senior who has been through it all.

Darby, a reserve forward, just shakes his head and smiles when he thinks about going to Columbus, Ohio, to face Tennessee in the first round Friday.

"In the beginning, I thought it was a bad decision on coming here," Darby said. "But I stuck it out and I've gotten to see the program grow and that's pretty rewarding."

Point guard Kevin Houston and reserve post player Travon Free were around for the 2003-04 season -- they are the only four-year seniors on the team -- and thus have developed a special bond.

"We sit around talking about how bad we were," Houston said. "It's pretty amazing to see where we are now."

Darby said qualifying for the tournament still seems surreal -- almost as much as when he held the ball in his hands at the final buzzer of the berth-clinching victory at the Big West tournament.

"I didn't know what to do, so I just threw the ball in the air because that's what I always see people do TV," he said.

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Assistant coach Reggie Howard will not be with Long Beach State in Columbus, still on indefinite suspension pending an NCAA investigation into recruiting violations.

The team's recruiting coordinator, Howard is largely responsible for assembling the players on the team and they say he will be missed.

"Coach Howard has been a big inspiration to our team," guard Aaron Nixon said. "He put this together. We looked up to him. He's kind of a father figure or big brother."

Nixon said he's spoken with Howard only a couple of times since the late-January suspension.

"Part of it is I think he's staying away so we can try to stay focused," Nixon said.

*

Kejuan Johnson and Mark Dawson were suspended with Howard, but they were reinstated after three games.

"That was the longest three games of my life," Johnson said. "It really hurt sitting on the bench watching my guys. I felt like I wasn't part of the team. When I found out it was only going to be three games, it was a relief."

Neither player wanted to elaborate on the specifics of the offense, which dealt with payment for classes at a community college before they enrolled at Long Beach State.

When it happened, they weren't immediately told how long their suspensions would be, leading to a brief thought that their seasons might be over.

"I wasn't that worried because there wasn't anything I saw that was worth getting suspended for," Dawson said. "If it was up to me it would have been no games."

peter.yoon@latimes.com

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