Texans take on Augustana in quarterfinal at 6 p.m. Wednesday
By BRAD KEITH
FRISCO (March 23, 2016) — Michael Hardge practiced the pass in practice, but kept throwing it away.
But there would be no exasperated foot stomps, shouts or hair pulling by his veteran head coach when he attempted the pass in a big game.
Because the player once dubbed by Wichita Falls Times Record-News sports editor Andy Newberry as “Loose Ball Hardge,” has evolved. Last time Newberry spoke to this writer about Hardge, the nickname had changed. It’s now “Big game Hardge.”
Fitting for a point guard who has been part of 103 college wins in his career, 59 of them and two Elite Eight appearances as a starter.
The pass in question was a wrap-around-the-body, no-look, behind-the-back pass from a driving Hardge to an open Chantz Chambers for a left-corner 3-pointer. When it worked against Angelo State, it seemed to set the tone for Tarleton offensively the rest of the night. In a regional championship game, no less.
Hardge went on the attack, with Hamilton in the left win and Chambers in the corner. The defense collapsed, just as Hardge predicted it would, and without hesitation, here it came. Hardge didn’t just take the ball around his body and find Chambers, he hit him with a bullett right in the hands, in front of his chest, and without hesitation, Chambers hit nothing but the bottom strands of net.
Hardge kept driving all night, and players like Chambers, Hamilton, EJ Reed, Charles Hill and even Hardge himself, kept taking passes and burying open shots. And playing defense. And winning, 77-72, over a Ram team they also defeated in the 2015 regional final.
“I definitely think so,” said Hardge when asked if it was the best pass of his career. “I’ve had some good passes (see any number of alley-oops on Tarleton’s highlight films at tarletonsports.com), but nothing behind the back or flashy like that. I think it was my best one.”
That says a lot for a guy who led the Lone Star Conference in assists this season. Now, as a senior leader for the only team returning from the 2015 Elite Eight to the 2016 event in Frisco, Hardge looks to assist his team in capturing the only title it has never earned – national champion.
Tarleton faces Augustana (SD) at 6 p.m. Wednesday at Dr Pepper Arena. It’s the third of four quarterfinal contests that begin at noon. A win would place the Texans in a semifinal contest against Western Oregon or Saginaw Valley State (Mich.) in the semifinals at 8:30 p.m. Friday. The championship tips off at 2 p.m. Saturday.
“The day after the regional championship I did some of my own research on (Augustana). I saw that they have some great players, even an All-American big man,” said Hardge. “They have to be great to be in the Elite Eight, but I don’t know if any of these teams have been through the things we have. The Lone Star Conference is so intense every night, every possession really. It hardens you as a player and brings you together as a team.”
Hardge says there were a lot of restless nights and long bus rides that were part of Tarleton coming this far a second straight year.
“There was a stretch where it seemed like we just couldn’t win on the road, but we were playing at places like West Texas A&M, Cameron and Angelo (State), and that’s hard for anyone,” Hardge said. “But we came back down to earth and realized once again what it took to win in this league and in this region.”
Now, the experienced Texans hope they are the ones with the winning formula in Frisco. They should certainly be the ones with the largest crowd.
“We had a great turnout last year when it was in Indiana,” Hardge recalled. “I can’t even imagine what the crowd is going to be like now that we’re doing this in Texas.”
The event will include that saw Hardge grow from being the backup to All-American Chuck Guy into the leader behind the wheel, driving one of the most successful Division II programs in America.
“It’s been fun,” said Hardge. “I appreciate everything about Tarleton and my four years here. The fans, the community, everybody. I’m just thankful.”
But before he leaves, Hardge wants to see the dream all the way through.
“Getting back here is a dream come true, but that’s only part of the dream,” he said. “We’re here to win this thing.”