In his mind, it was the turning point in his season — and perhaps his career.
The fact that it happened when it happened was more than a little ironic.
It was Saturday afternoon, Dec. 29 against the Southeastern Lions in Hammond.
Cedric Russell wasn’t just a good high school basketball player.
Before that game, UL junior guard P.J. Hardy had made had minimal impact on the Ragin’ Cajuns season with just a pair of double-figure efforts over his first 16 games.
In fact, the Lake Charles native didn’t even reach double-digits in that game against Southeastern. What he did, though, is hit a shot that in his mind, turned around the fortunes of his entire season.
With 27 seconds left in regulation, Hardy nailed a 3-pointer to give the Cajuns a one-point lead over the Lions. They went on to win 73-72.
Hardy was 3-for-3 beyond the arc, and he finished with nine points.
“I started playing more minutes and started getting more confidence,” said Hardy, whose 19-12, No. 5-seeded Cajuns begin Sun Belt Conference tournament play against South Alabama at 5 p.m. Thursday at Lakefront Arena in New Orleans.
"I hit a big shot late in the (Southeastern) game to tie it. Ever since then, I’m having the confidence we’ve needed for me to play.”
It also was the clearest turning point of UL’s season for a very different reason.
Filling out a lineup card, especially for home games, is beginning to become a daunting task for UL baseball coach Tony Robichaux.
Senior Malik Marquetti suffered a season-ending knee injury in that game. At the time, he was the Cajuns’ leader in 3-point shooting and free-throw shooting and was the team’s top perimeter defender.
“Me, him and Kee (JaKeenan Gant) were all playing pretty well in that game, so when (Marquetti) went out, that’s when I had to step in and knock it down,” Hardy said.
Suddenly, the performance of teammates like Hardy, and eventually Cedric Russell, could no longer just be complementary. They would all need to do more.
Now that it’s March and it’s conference tournament time, another irony of that game has arisen. Senior point guard Marcus Stroman suffered a hamstring injury in last Saturday’s 90-87 overtime win over Arkansas State.
If Stroman can’t play Thursday or is slowed significantly, once again Hardy and the rest of the supporting cast will have to shoulder more of the burden of scoring.
Ironically, the only game Stroman didn’t start all season long was that game at Southeastern.
UL somehow won that game, even though Gant only scored nine points, and Marquetti suffered an injury — in part because of Hardy’s 3-point shooting but also because of freshman Trajan Wesley’s 10 points.
UL’s fortunes Thursday could depend so heavily on Hardy, Russell and Wesley.
In UL’s past 15 games, Hardy has reached double figures eight times. Along with that, his defense has improved.
“I’ve gotten better every year on the defensive side of the ball,” Hardy said. “Probably guarding the ball is what’s been a weakness of mine over the years, so that’s where I’ve stepped up my game. It’s still not where it needs to me, but it’s at a good place right now I think. I just have to keep going with it.”
He's now averaging 7.0 points and 2.3 rebounds per game, as well as shooting 77.4 percent from the line and 34.7 percent from 3-point range.
“I think P.J. has had a really good conference season. He’s accepted his role,” UL director of operations Mike Murphy said. “He’s been very coachable. He understands what he can and can’t do. He’s showing more discipline in his shot selection.
“I think he’s showing more discipline when he puts the ball on the floor going to the basket — instead of forcing the shot, looking for that next guy. So I think he’s done a really good job in conference play, especially over the last eight games.”
Hardy said he knows all the sets and could fill in at point guard if needed this weekend.
By now, perhaps at least one member of UL men’s basketball coaching staff has a better idea of most of the Sun Belt Conference implications he…
His other prime ability is his endurance, playing 40 or more minutes on multiple occasions this season.
“For sure, I do get tired,” Hardy laughed. “I just block it out and fight the fatigue and just keep going.”
It’s all been such a huge relief for Hardy, who spent a season and a half struggling to contribute.
“Oh, definitely,” Hardy said. “They weren’t dark (days), but there was definitely a fear of not really knowing what was going to happen. There was just a fear of the unknown.
“There was a point all of last year and a little bit of this year when I didn’t have any confidence. I just kept going and stuck it through.”