Jerrick Harding’s senior season has been part dream come true and part nearly unbearable nightmare. With his senior season winding down, one of the greatest scorers in the history of the Big Sky Conference is set on finishing his career with a flourish.
The former Kansas Gatorade Player of the Year came to Weber State in part because of his affinity for Damian Lillard. Harding first started following the first-team All-NBA point guard during Lillard’s sophomore season at Weber when Lillard chronicled his rehab from a broken foot that cost him that season.
During his first season at Weber State, Harding learned the ways of the Wildcats from former All-Big Sky shooting guard Jeremy Senglin. That 2017 campaign, Senglin nearly shot Weber State into the NCAA Tournament, becoming the all-time leading scorer in the history of the program in the process.
Four years later, Harding is the next in a long line of stellar scoring guards who have played for 14th-year head coach Randy Rahe. And earlier this season, Harding exploded for 25 points in the first half alone against Sacramento State, an outburst that gave him 2,080 points in his prolific career, helping him surpass Senglin for the most points in the history of WSU basketball.
Harding finished with 44 points that night, setting the arena record at the Dee Events Center and finishing just two points shy of his career high set in Weber’s regular-season at Montana State two seasons ago. That 46-point outburst in March of 2018 also remains the most points ever scored by a Weber State player.
Harding’s virtuoso performance against Sac in a 70-66 win earlier this season came with a shooting line that turned heads around the league: the 6-foot slasher went 14-of-21 from the floor, 5-of-10 from beyond the 3-point arc and 11-of-11 from the free throw line.
“All the talk of the records, it’s really no pressure and I try not to put anything on myself about that,” Harding said in an interview the final day of February. “I just knew if I went out there and did my job, it would eventually come. You always hear people talking about records but I tried not to listen to it. I tried to just help my team and play my game.”
The WSU senior has scored 116 more points since then, giving him 594 this season. He now has 2,215 points in his career, the third-most in the history of the league. With two guaranteed games remaining, Harding can certainly reach former Northern Colorado star Jordan Davis, the league’s MVP a season ago, for second on the list. Harding is 57 points behind Davis, so hitting his 22.2 point-per-game average over the next few contests will get him close.
The top four and five of the top six scorers in the history of the league have competed in the Big Sky over the last four seasons. Montana State sharpshooter Tyler Hall netted 2,518 points during his productive career while Davis scored 2,272 over the last four seasons at UNC. Harding is third and has 30 more points than former Eastern Washington star Bogdan Bliznyuk, who set the scoring record in the spring of 2018 and held the record for exactly one year before Hall and Davis both passed him on the list last season. And Senglin’s 2,078 points sits sixth.
“We have prepared for and competed against every single one of the league’s top scorers and Harding is hands down the best scorer of any of them,” Montana associate head coach Chris Cobb said on the Grizzly Radio Network leading up to UM’s game against Weber State in mid-February in Missoula. “The way he can finish at the rim, the way he can stretch the floor, his speed, his quickness, his scorers mentality, he has been the toughest cover in the league for three years straight.”
The only player in the top five that did not play his senior season the last few seasons is former Idaho scoring Orlando Lightfoot, who scored 2,102 points between 1992 and 1994 in just 91 games for the Vandals.
Yet despite all those accolades, this season has been a disheartening struggle for Harding, and subsequently, his team. Harding suffered a stress fracture in his foot before the season yet was still named Big Sky Preseason Player of the Year. He missed WSU’s first two games completely and played sparingly in the next two.
“He was out for almost two and a half months, practiced once, and started playing games,” Rahe said with amazement in his voice. “He hasn’t hardly practiced since, either.”
Harding broke out for 36 points in 72-67 win over Utah Valley in Weber’s first game of December. He played just 17 minutes two of the next three games as WSU took apart overmatched opponents. He scored 17 points against Utah and 27 more at BYU to wrap up Weber’s non-conference schedule with a 4-7 record.
On December 28, Harding scored 26 points in Weber’s 79-77 loss to Eastern Washington to open conference play. But he turned his ankle badly in that game, an injury that has led to all sorts of ailments during his final season of college hoops.
He didn’t play in a 69-68 win against Idaho. He returned to the lineup but scored a season-low six points in a 72-64 loss at Northern Arizona. Harding has only missed one game since then; he was a late scratch in Missoula and his team suffered a 72-37 loss without him.
Other than that DNP, Harding is playing nearly 35 minutes per contest over the last 14 games despite suffering from shin splints and an ailing back that are side effects of his foot and ankle injuries.
“He is one tough dude, now, I’ll tell you,” said Rahe, the Big Sky’s all-time leader in league wins and overall victories. “He has not been healthy all year. He has not been in shape all year. He has sacrificed his body for the team doing everything he can to help. He’s as mentally as tough a kid as I have coached for a long, long time. He won’t let on how much pain he is playing in when he’s playing.
“This is all mental toughness. He is able to put the pain aside and go out there and play. It speaks to the amount of talent that he has, too.”
Unfortunately for Harding, Rahe and the Wildcats, that toughness has meant plenty of points but not plenty of victories. In Harding’s final home game as a Wildcat on Monday, Idaho State snapped a 12-game losing streak by defeating Weber 78-70 in Ogden.
“It’s been an up and down years as a team in general,” Harding said. “I feel like this team as a whole has done a good job of fighting the whole year no matter what we’ve gone through. Whatever guys can play, who can’t play, whatever we have gone through, we just fight.
“I feel like for me, being a senior, I’m going to fight regardless.”
The loss to ISU drops WSU to 7-11 in league play and 11-18 overall. But the Wildcats bounced back for a 72-64 win over Idaho on Thursday; Harding scored 16 points.
Regardless of Saturday’s result at Eastern Washington, Weber State will finish outside the top three of the league standings for just the third time in Rahe’s 14 seasons at the helm. Weber will finish with a losing record for the first time since the 2014-15 season, a campaign derailed when Senglin, then a freshman, suffered a broken jaw that cost him half of the league schedule.
“It’s been hard on my teammates, especially the Montana game,” Harding said. “I thought I was going to play, went through warm ups and I thought I was good but then I wasn’t feeling good that night and Coach told me to sit out. That took a toll on my teammates.
“At the end of the day, they know I’m going to do what I can to help the team, whatever I can do whether I’m playing or not. They give me confidence so I try to give them confidence as well.”
Although he has been hurting, Harding has not stopped scoring the ball at a historic rate. Harding is averaging 23.2 points per game in league play and 22.2 points per game overall, both marks that rank among the Top 25 scoring seasons in terms of average in the history of the league.
With at least three games remaining in his college career, he needs just six more points to join the 600-point club in a single season for the third time in his career. If he scored 89 more points, he would break into the Top 25 single-season scoring totals in league history.
“You have to guard him as a collective group,” said Idaho first-year head coach Zac Claus whose team hosts Weber State Thursday night. “You can’t ask or rely on a simple individual to guard him. His speed and quickness, it just absolutely jumps off the screen when you watch him play. He is explosive. He is dynamic. He has an ability to score it from all over the place. He is a threat the moment he gets the ball in the backcourt.”
All this with playing with nearly twice the body fat percentage —Rahe said Harding is between 10 and 11 percent right now when he is customarily down around six percent — and pain from the middle of his back to the bottom of his feet.
“He’s really fast and he’s a great finisher around the rim,” said Montana junior guard Timmy Falls after Harding dropped 31 in an 87-85 victory over UM, certainly WSU’s best league win this season. “Even if you have a wall, he finds some way to get around. Just his shooting ability, his catch and shoot is really good and makes him that much harder to guard. And he’s one of the toughest guys in the league off the dribble. He’s pretty much an all-around guard.”
Depending on how the final weekend finishes, Harding will almost certainly finish with all-conference honors. The question is has he done enough individually to earn first-team All-Big Sky. If he does, he will become the 22nd player in the history of the conference to earn a first-team nod three times in his career, including the fifth player from Weber State to do it.
“He’s unbelievable and it’s been fun watching his growth,” EWU third-year head coach Shantay Legans said earlier this season. “When he came in, he’s a little jitterbug guard, pretty good but as you keep watching him, he keeps getting better, and better and better. And then he gets better again.”
Lillard was the last Wildcat to earn first-team All-Big Sky honors. Senglin did not do it. Neither did Joel Bolomboy, the 2015-16 league MVP. And neither did Davion Barry, the 2013-14 Big Sky Player of the Year.
“When I was in high school (at Southeast High in Wichita), my recruiting was stressful because I really didn’t have any offers until my senior year,” Harding said. “But I knew about Weber State because of Damian Lillard.
“Even before he was in the league, I used to watch his highlights. I used to watch his “Dame’s Diary’ videos he would post the year he was hurt.
“It’s just crazy to think about thinking back on that and how it came into play.”
Like so many other kids in Kansas, Harding grew up wanting to play for the KU Jayhawks. He remembers attending team camps hoping to get noticed. As he got older, Wichita State burst onto the national scene. More and more players Harding grew up playing with and against began to play for the Shockers.
That local flavor caused for the competition level in Wichita to rise, Harding said. He has never been big — he only weighs between 165 and 170 pounds during the season and his 6-foot-1 height listing is certainly generous — but he’s never had any fear driving to the rim, which is the table setter for the rest of his unorthodox yet brilliant scoring ability.
“I feel like my style just comes from where I grew up,” Harding said. “I’m not going to say I’m hood or something like that (laughs) but I grew up around a tough place where you really had to play hard and not back down from anybody.”
When he first visited Weber State, Rahe and his staff emphasized the priority they put on skill development. Many a guard has come to Ogden as a prospect with potential and left with the skills to play professionally, whether in the NBA like Lillard, in the NBA G League like Senglin or overseas like Berry, Scott Bamforth and several more.
Despite the disappointing senior year as a team, Harding still harbors next-level aspirations. Weber State currently sits in a three-way tie for seventh place with Sac State and Southern Utah. Saturday’s contests will determine the final seedings for next week’s tournament.
“It’s always been a dream of mine to play professionally and it’s just crazy I’m close to that point. But ’m trying not to focus on what happens after the season. I’m just trying to finish the season strong,” Harding said.
Regardless of if WSU can climb to seven, sticks at eight or nine or falls to 10, Harding has one last chance at redemption during his senior year. It will begin Wednesday march 11 in Boise, Idaho in the first round of the Big Sky Tournament.
“We have shown glimpses of the team we can be throughout the season and I feel like going into the tournament, I feel like we will have the utmost confidence,” Harding said. “We feel like we can win it if we put everything together and just play as hard as we can.”
Photos by Brooks Nuanez. All Rights Reserved.