P.J. Hardwick didn’t know when he would get an opportunity to play a major role at North Texas.
That was part of the deal when he joined a team that already featured Chris Jones, one of the Sun Belt Conference’s top point guards.
There were games when Hardwick played a couple of minutes and others in which he barely saw the court. None of that bothered Hardwick, who kept grinding away in practice and hoisting extra shots on his own.
“I am a team player and believe in winning,” Hardwick said. “Whether I am playing for two minutes or 30, I am going to cheer for my team and play hard when my opportunity is there.”
For Hardwick, his time is now.
A series of dominoes fell in just the right way to elevate Hardwick to the starting lineup, where he will be for the second straight game today when UNT faces Louisiana-Monroe. The Mean Green (6-9, 1-3 Sun Belt) will take on the Warhawks (2-8, 1-3) in a doubleheader that will begin with the women’s game at 5 p.m.
UNT heads into tonight looking for its second straight win after knocking off conference foe Troy 76-59 on Thursday.
Hardwick played a key role in that victory in his first start, handing out seven assists in one of the Mean Green’s most efficient offensive outings of the season.
UNT shot 48.3 percent (28-for-58) from the floor, despite being shorthanded. Small forward Jacob Holmen didn’t start due to a foot injury that will keep him out of today’s game as well, and backup forward Keith Coleman served a one-game suspension after a violation of team rules.
Being shorthanded made it all the more important for UNT to get the ball to star forward Tony Mitchell. Hardwick played a key role in making sure UNT did just that on a night when Mitchell scored a season-high 29 points.
“I feel good about P.J.,” UNT coach Tony Benford said. “Defensively he did a good job on the ball, was vocal out there and got guys the ball in the right spots. He tried to hit a home run a couple of times; I told him to make the simple plays. If he does that, he will be fine.”
Being solid with the ball has been Hardwick’s strength dating back to his time at Humble Christian Life, a prep school powerhouse where he averaged 10 assists per game as a senior.
“My prep year was big. I played with 10 to 12 Division I players,” Hardwick said. “That helped me learn as a point guard how to get the ball to different people in the right spots at the right times. It played a big part in helping me develop my game. That is why I am so comfortable out there as a freshman.”
Hardwick signed with Mississippi State but backed out of that commitment following a coaching change and ended up at UNT, where he seems to fit well with Benford’s offensive philosophy of getting the ball inside at every possible opportunity.
Mitchell credited his big night against Troy largely to his teammates getting him the ball in position to score and mentioned Hardwick specifically.
UNT turned to the freshman after putting Alzee Williams at point guard for one game after Jones went down in a Dec. 29 loss to Western Kentucky. The Mean Green struggled to get anything going offensively in a 75-57 loss to Middle Tennessee on New Year’s Eve.
Benford quickly decided that UNT was better off with Hardwick as its starting point guard.
“He’s a smart kid,” Benford said. “He will come in and watch tape with you. When you have kids like that who have a passion for the game, it makes you feel comfortable. We really had no choice. Alzee is more comfortable off the ball, where he can get out and run and get the ball on the wing from P.J. in transition.”
Williams had just four points in UNT’s loss to MTSU, well off his average of 10.3 points a game. Once he was free to move back to the wing, he was once again a top offensive threat. Williams scored 10 points on 4-of-6 shooting in just 23 minutes off the bench against Troy.
What might have been an even better sign for UNT was the way it shot the ball against the Trojans — just one game after going 5-for-27 (18.5 percent) from the floor in the first half of its loss to MTSU.
One of Jones’ strengths is his ability to push the ball in transition and score at the rim. With him out of the lineup, it will be more important for UNT to score in halfcourt situations.
Hardwick will be a key part of UNT’s plans to do that.
“We are starting to figure things out,” Hardwick said. “Coach Benford and his staff do a great job teaching the offense every day in practice. We just have to carry it over to games. [Thursday] we did a good job in transition. That got us going. In the halfcourt, we were really patient and got Tony the ball when he needed it. When you have a player like that, you need to get him going and feed off him. I have to get people shots and not force shots. We did a good job of being patient.
“That was the best we looked in the halfcourt this year.”
At least some of the credit for that improvement went to Hardwick, whose time to play a key role for UNT has arrived a little earlier than expected.
“P.J. works hard in the weight room, and the guys respect his toughness,” Benford said. “He did a good job backing up Chris and playing a few minutes. Now he’s going to play a lot of minutes.”
UNT women aim to build on second Sun Belt win
Head coach Mike Petersen looked down the line shortly after the Mean Green women improved to 2-2 in Sun Belt play with their win over Troy on Wednesday.
UNT (3-10) has struggled this season while facing a brutal schedule, but is still very much in the race for the Sun Belt West Division title heading into its game against ULM today.
Arkansas-Little Rock (10-3, 3-2) is just ahead of the Mean Green in the standings.
“If we win [today], the game at Arkansas-Little Rock will be for first place in our division,” Petersen said. “I told the girls that one of the really fun things to do is to play important games in January and February. If we win on Saturday, we will have a very important game the following week.”
Sara Stanley scored 23 points and grabbed 11 rebounds in UNT’s win over Troy and is one of five players averaging at least 8.5 points a game for UNT. Stanley is posting 9.8 points a game for the Mean Green, which is paced by Alexis Hyder. The freshman forward is posting 13.1 points a game.
ULM (2-11) has dropped its first four Sun Belt games.
BRETT VITO can be reached at 940-566-6870. His e-mail address is email@example.com.