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OGDEN — At this time of year, it comes down to players.
It's a defining phrase of the Randy Rahe era at Weber State. And with just five regular season games left, it's also the message Jerrick Harding is taking to heart as Weber prepares for its final push toward the top seed in the upcoming Big Sky tournament.
While the Wildcats are 3-4 in their last seven games, Harding has been a steadying hand for an undermanned Weber State team this season. Of late, the junior guard is averaging 29 points per game on 55 percent shooting from the field and 40 percent from deep with both Zach Braxton and Ricky Nelson sidelined the last three games.
“I had to pick my energy up being a leader on the team,” Harding said following Weber’s 83-80 loss to Montana. “I just try to make plays for my team, do what I can, keep my energy up.”
With Harding as the engine of the offense, Weber (16-10, 10-5) has posted an impressive 108.4 offensive rating this season, but a staggering 114.5 rating in its last three games. According to hoop-math.com, Harding’s used 32.5 percent of his team’s possessions over that stretch, and yielded a 63.6 effective field goal percentage while shooting 70 percent at the rim.
But while Harding is known more as a finisher than a playmaker, his assist numbers have also risen — from 1.0 to 2.6 — in the last three games. In addition, he has put together a streak of two steals in six straight contests.
“We had some talk about ‘It’s time to be a complete player," Rahe said, referring to an earlier conversation he had with Harding this season. “Great players make their teammates better. They make ‘em better by guarding hard. They make ‘em better by moving the ball, assisting, giving energy to your team. … And he’s been doing that.”
There is a delicate balancing act for the Wildcats, though. Harding has proved his ability to carry a team throughout the last two seasons; but in playing more than 35 minutes a night, there is a risk that the increased load could lead to injury.
Case in point: Against Montana State, Harding missed a chunk of the game midway through the second half when he twisted his left ankle on a failed cut to the rim. Having dazzled to that point with a little over 12 minutes remaining, Harding limped back on defense and grimaced in obvious pain, forcing Rahe to pull him at the next dead ball despite a narrow 59-56 lead.
Before that, Harding had injured that same ankle against Sacramento State earlier in the season, and it led to an eight-point, 2-of-14 shooting performance in a 65-53 loss to Southern Utah five days later.
Rahe, ever worried, shuddered at the idea of a potential Harding injury.
“That one would hurt us,” he said. “These other two (Braxton and Nelson’s injuries) have hurt us, but that one would hurt us a little bit.”
But whether the Wildcats are successful over the next five games won’t be solely on Harding. It will depend to some extent on whether or not his supporting cast can match his energy, and thrive along with him.
“I think it’s very important this time of the year that your kids are enjoying what they’re doing, enjoying competing, enjoying each other, playing with passion,” Rahe said.
Because after all, at this time of the year, it comes down to players. Follow Dillon on Twitter @dillondanderson.