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Cal Poly Pomona Guard Harrell Saves His Best for Last : Basketball: After slow start, community college transfer comes on strong to lead Broncos into CCAA playoffs.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

As a community college transfer, Andre Harrell joined the Cal Poly Pomona men’s basketball team this season with impressive credentials.

After all, it is not every season that the Broncos are able to attract a guard who was an all-state selection to play for them.

Harrell, 21, had earned the honor as a sophomore at L.A. Valley College last season and was being counted on to make an impact in his first season in Pomona.

Only the season didn’t exactly get off to a flying start for Harrell.

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“We were asking him to play the point, something that was an adjustment to him, and he has also had to adjust to playing at this level, which is a higher level than junior college,” Pomona Coach Dave Bollwinkel said.

But since the start of California Collegiate Athletic Assn. play in January, there has been a noticeable improvement in Harrell’s all-around play.

After having relatively nondescript statistics in nonconference play, Harrell finished in the CCAA top 10 in five offensive categories, including sixth in scoring at 13.6 points a game and a tie for sixth in assists with at 3.8.

“I think that parallels his improvement for us during the season,” Bollwinkel said. “He’s come a long way since the start of the year.”

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On the season, Harrell has been averaging 10.6 points but has been scoring at an 18.6 clip in the last 10 games.

In fact, he turned in his best two scoring outings of the season with 22 points against Cal State Los Angeles and 19 points against Cal Poly San Luis Obispo as the Broncos clinched a berth in the CCAA postseason tournament for the first time in school history. The third-seeded Broncos (14-13) meet second-seeded UC Riverside (21-5) in a first-round game at 6 p.m. Friday in the Cal State Bakersfield Activities Center.

The 6-foot-1, 160-pound Harrell attributes his improved play to his mastering of a new position.

“The only major adjustment was turning from an (off) guard to a point guard,” he said. “The only reason that was so much of an adjustment was that I had never done that before. But once I got it down, everything has been OK for me.”

He also had to adjust playing at the NCAA Division II level.

“The difference here is it’s not just one player who is competitive, it’s a whole team,” Harrell said. “Where I came from it wasn’t as team-oriented because there were always scouts in the stands and everyone wanted to go to a higher level and play.”

There was also the mental adjustment of playing for a team in Pomona’s position.

“When I first came over here, I had to get adjusted to playing for a team that really wanted to win,” he said. “Everyone wants to win but over here they really wanted to do anything they had to do to win. So I had to prepare a lot mentally, more than with the rest of my game, to play here.”

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Bollwinkel says Harrell has brought a lot of skills to the Broncos.

“He can play both guard spots and he’s a pretty good penetrator,” he said. “I think the key has been his ability to drive to the basket and that gets him to the free-throw line a lot. When he gets there, he’s a 70-plus percent shooter.

“I think right now he has helped the team most with his ability to create off the dribble.”

With his performance in conference play, Harrell has started to receive added attention from opposing teams.

San Luis Obispo Coach Steve Beeson went so far as to call Harrell the best guard in the conference. Bollwinkel isn’t ready to go quite that far yet.

“But I think he has the potential to be an all-conference player and he is already one of the best guards in the conference,” Bollwinkel said. “I think by next year he can definitely be one of the best players in the conference.”

Harrell is starting to receive the attention on the court that always seemed to elude him when he was younger.

Of course, it was difficult to receive much notice when his teammates at Inglewood High included Harold Miner and Bobby Sears. Miner has since become a standout at USC and Sears is a starter at Cal State Long Beach.

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Two other teammates of Harrell’s at Inglewood were Corey Arnett, who played at New Orleans before transferring to Hancock Junior College, and Pat Holbert, who starts for the University of San Diego.

So despite playing well enough to earn All-Ocean League honors at Inglewood, Harrell didn’t receive much interest from four-year colleges.

“I was pretty overshadowed by my teammates,” he said. “We had some pretty good players there and I didn’t get a lot of attention.”

In fact, there was only one college that even sent Harrell a recruiting letter when he was in high school.

“I only got one letter my whole high school career and that was from West L.A. College, so that’s where I went,” he said.

But Harrell stayed at West L.A. for less than a season before he transferred.

“It was kind of an up-and-down season for me,” he said. “I had some family situations to deal with and we moved a lot, so I’d say I had a lot of problems at the time.

“We lived in Inglewood and then we moved to the (San Fernando) Valley and I had to take the bus to school. I had to catch five (buses) to get there, so it was a strain on me and a strain on the team. I missed a lot of practice and the coach wasn’t very happy about that.”

Harrell’s career started to blossom after he transferred to L.A. Valley during his freshman year.

“I went to Valley College, redshirted a year and I took time to work on aspects of my game that needed improvement,” he said.

After more than a season away from competitive basketball, Harrell played for Valley as a sophomore and averaged 18.2 points, seven rebounds and four assists.

“I was pretty surprised with my success but it all came as a result of my summer league play and Coach (Jim) Stephens, who gave me the freedom to succeed and he also stressed defense a lot,” he said.

With his reputation as a player improving, Harrell was recruited by a handful of Division I schools, including Fresno State, Colorado State and Cal State Northridge. But he didn’t think twice about settling on Division II Pomona.

“I think the school recruited me real strong,” he said. “They made you feel like you were part of the family. I made it a point in high school that the first school that recruited me hard was where I would go to and they really recruited me. When I talked it over with my mom, we decided that’s where I was going to go.

“I felt that in Division I there was too much politics involved that I didn’t understand. A lot of schools didn’t really make a commitment to me and I just wanted to play basketball. Coach Bollwinkel just layed it all out to me and told me they wanted me and this was where I wanted to go.”

Harrell said he hasn’t regretted his decision for a minute.

“Whether it’s Division I or Division II doesn’t mean anything to me,” he said. “If your a good player, you can shine anywhere.”

While he is starting to impress opponents, Harrell realizes that he still needs to improve in several areas.

“Physically, he needs to get stronger,” Bollwinkel said. “He’s always going to be very wiry. Even if he works out, he’s never going to look like Arnold Schwartzenegger. He also has to work on his passing decisions, although he is improving in that area, and he has to work on his shooting percentage, which is about 45%.”

But the coach has never been worried about Harrell’s willingness to improve. In fact, Harrell can usually be spotted in Kellogg Gym long after practice. He also finds time in the morning to practice.

“Some people call them ‘gym rats’ but I like to call them ‘Basketball Bennies,’ ” Bollwinkel said. “He’s a player who just hangs around the gym a lot.”

Harrell said he is looking forward to next season.

For the moment, though, he is focused on the CCAA tournament. He will also celebrate his 22nd birthday on Saturday--the day of the conference tournament final--and he is hoping to receive a special present.

“I’m hoping for a (Division II) tournament bid on my birthday,” he said. “That would be the best gift of all.”


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