Basketball: Hardwick gets to play for friends, family

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Players filing ticket requests is almost as prevalent a routine in college basketball as the layup line.

When parents show up to see their sons or daughters in action, players simply turn in a form so a few people can get in for free.

When it comes to North Texas’ games this week in Florida, freshman point guard P.J. Hardwick pretty much put in a section request.

The Miami native will get one shot this year to play in his hometown and is aiming to take full advantage of it today, when the Mean Green takes on Florida International in the second half of a doubleheader that will begin with the women’s game at 4:30 p.m. at U.S. Century Bank Arena.

 “It will be great to go back home and see all of my family,” Hardwick said. “I will have tons of family on my mom’s and dad’s side there. It will be great to see all my friends, put on a show in front of them, get some wins, have a good experience and a good time there.

“Everyone’s coming — friends, family, aunts, cousins.”

By the time the entire clan checked in, Hardwick had a crew of about 80 set to attend today’s game, when the Mean Green will look to build on a win over South Alabama that snapped a slide that had seen UNT lose five of six.

Hardwick played a key role in UNT’s 66-56 win over the Jaguars, scoring a career-high 14 points to go along with seven rebounds and four assists.

UNT is depending on the former Humble Christian Life standout more than ever after starting point guard Chris Jones went down with a broken foot in a loss to Western Kentucky on Dec. 29. Hardwick came off the bench two nights later in a loss to Middle Tennessee and has started the Mean Green’s last four games, playing at least 31 minutes in each of those games.

The pressure on Hardwick to handle a larger role has increased as UNT’s injury situation has gotten progressively worse.

The Mean Green is without shooting guard Brandan Walton, who was lost for the year when he broke his foot in UNT’s season opener, and now will be without Clarke Overlander and Jacob Holmen. Overlander, a backup shooting guard, has a sprained anterior cruciate ligament in his knee, and Holmen, one of UNT’s most productive wing players off the bench, suffered a concussion in UNT’s win over USA on Saturday.

Justin Patton, another backup forward, will be in and out of the lineup the rest of the year due to a knee injury.

UNT has gotten so desperate for guards that it has moved Niko Stojiljkovic, a 6-foot-9 forward, to the perimeter to help fill the void.

UNT will have little choice but to put the ball in Hardwick’s hands the rest of the season. Coach Tony Benford and Hardwick’s teammates would love to have Jones and be at full strength, but are confident the freshman can handle the job.

The fact that he will continue settling into a starting role in front of friends and family today is just an added bonus.

“It’s great for P.J.,” Benford said. “I’m happy for him. He is a great ambassador for the program. He has worked extremely hard and has a great attitude. I’m excited about where he is at. He’s a gym rat. We want to build our program on players like P.J. — tough kids who are unselfish and work hard.”

It was Hardwick’s willingness to put in the work to become a top college prospect that led him to leave Miami in the first place.

Hardwick left Florida and finished his high school career at Christian Life, a prep school in Humble that featured top players from around the world.

Hardwick committed to Mississippi State before backing out of that pledge to sign with UNT, where he carved out a role early this season. He played at least 10 minutes in each of the Mean Green’s first seven games.

His role is even larger now that UNT is shorthanded. Chances are he will be on the floor for at least 30 minutes tonight with his own cheering section looking on.

“P.J. hasn’t said too much about it, but he is going to come with it,” UNT guard Alzee Williams said. “It will be like a home game with how many family members and friends he has coming.”

The opportunity is one Hardwick has been waiting for all season.

“I talked to my family about it,” Hardwick said. “I’m excited. They are excited. I’ve been looking forward to this game all year.”

 

UNT women aiming for fifth straight win

When it comes to road trips in the Sun Belt, the swing to MTSU and WKU is usually considered the toughest in women’s basketball.

The challenge UNT will face at FIU and Florida Atlantic this week isn’t too far behind.

UNT will face the Golden Panthers, who are in the 10-6 overall and 4-3 in Sun Belt play, tonight before facing FAU (8-7, 5-2) on Saturday.

“This is a tough trip,” UNT coach Mike Petersen said. “It’s similar to going to Western and Middle.”

UNT (6-10, 5-2) lost both of those games by two points but has been on a roll ever since.

Alexis Hyder is averaging 12.9 points a game to lead four UNT players in double figures.

BRETT VITO can be reached at 940-566-6870. His e-mail address is bvito@dentonrc.com .


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