Jessica Hardin hadn’t played competitive basketball in almost two years.
She was starting to feel the effects of not working out regularly and had just complained to her parents that she needed to find a way to get back in shape.
It wasn’t long after that conversation that her phone rang.
It was a call from Kentucky Coach Matthew Mitchell asking Hardin if she’d meet with him.
Hardin, a former standout at Wayne County who played an injury-marred season at Bellarmine before hanging up her sneakers, knew that UK was looking for players.
She’d heard about UK losing nearly half of its team last season to transfers.
“At first I wasn’t really thinking about it because I’ve been out of it for so long,” said Hardin, a healthcare communications senior, of the prospect of playing college basketball again.
Just a few short years ago while playing AAU ball with players like Makayla Epps and Maci Morris, now both Kentucky teammates, Hardin would have jumped at the chance to play for Kentucky.
“He was always there watching,” she said of Mitchell. “It was always a dream, but I wasn’t really recruited in high school. I definitely wanted to play at UK, but it didn’t work out that way.”
The granddaughter of former Cats quarterback James Hardin had spent all of her formative years a Kentucky fan.
But after nearly two years away from the game, Hardin couldn’t imagine what kind of pitch the coach would make that would persuade her to leave her sorority’s campus championship intramural team and walk on at Kentucky.
“He was really encouraging and positive,” Hardin said of her meeting with Mitchell.
When asked about his life-altering pitch, Mitchell shrugged.
“You can come work out four mornings a week at 5:30 in the morning,” he said. “Not too enticing probably.”
The first game gave me a lot of confidence in getting back in the swing of things. I remember hitting shots like that and now it’s like, ‘Hey, you can still do that.’
Turns out, she didn’t love the morning part, but Hardin said the conditioning “was kind of fun because I hadn’t done it in a long time.”
It was during that phase, when Kentucky’s strength and conditioning coach was just trying to get some baseline info on Hardin’s fitness, that Mitchell realized a UK-caliber player might’ve been on campus all along.
John Spurlock, the strength coach, mentioned that Hardin had quick feet.
Knowing that Spurlock wasn’t one for hyperbole, that caused Mitchell to raise an eyebrow.
Then Spurlock mentioned that Hardin’s feet moved at the same quickness as Kentucky’s quickest guard, Taylor Murray.
“We quickly saw that, athletically, her footwork and her speed is very uncommon for a kid who’s walking the halls on campus,” Mitchell said. “She’s a very fast, very quick player, who shoots the three amazingly well.”
The 5-foot-8 guard started to feel like she belonged on UK’s team during summer conditioning. When Mitchell offered her a full scholarship, she accepted.
But it wasn’t until Hardin made a three-pointer on the wing at the halftime buzzer of the first game against a fellow top-25 team in Miami that she realized she might be fine at this level.
“The first game gave me a lot of confidence in getting back in the swing of things,” said Hardin, who is averaging 7.3 points and 2.6 rebounds in 19 minutes off the UK bench. “I remember hitting shots like that and now it’s like, ‘Hey, you can still do that.’”
She scored a Kentucky career-high 11 points in the last game against New Hampshire and has made six of her 12 three-point attempts for the No. 15 Cats, who play at Colorado (2-0) on Saturday.
Don’t let Hardin’s quiet demeanor and unassuming smile fool you, said UK senior Epps, who played with Hardin in the summers.
“I’m a big fan of Jess Hardin’s,” Epps said, grinning. “Jess Hardin is gritty. Wayne County, Monticello, country girl. Whatever you tell Jess to do, she’s going to do.”
Sometimes stuff you don’t even want Hardin to do, she’ll do. Just ask Morris.
“Me and Jess, we went at it when we played each other,” the sophomore guard said. “It was a friendly competition. … We had an incident in a game one time and I ended up having to go to the hospital because my tooth went through my lip.”
If you want Jess to hit a three, she’s going to do everything she can to hit a three. You want her to go out there and take her fifth foul? She takes the fifth foul and doesn’t ask why. She’s one of them gritty players.
More than anything, Morris and Epps were excited that Hardin was joining the team because they knew she was a hard worker. UK needed unselfish players willing to work hard if it was going to rebound from last season’s tumult.
“If you want Jess to hit a three, she’s going to do everything she can to hit a three,” Epps said. “You want her to go out there and take her fifth foul? She takes the fifth foul and doesn’t ask why. She’s one of them gritty players.”
Mitchell sees the grit and determination and he sees what he calls “a godsend.”
Almost every night when he prays, Mitchell said he thanks God for sending Hardin Kentucky’s way when it was going through some difficult times.
“When I tell you it was a godsend, it was a godsend,” Mitchell said. “I am a man of deep faith and I just cannot explain it any other way, but it is unbelievable that she is here and doing such a great job.”
No. 15 Kentucky at Colorado
9 p.m. (WLAP-AM 630)
Probable starters: Maci Morris, 6-0, G, So. (9.7 pts, 2.3 rebs); Evelyn Akhator, 6-3, F, Sr. (21.0 pts, 11.3 rebs, 7 blks); Taylor Murray, 5-6, G, So. (6.0 pts, 3.3 rebs); Makayla Epps, 5-10, G, Sr. (17.0 pts, 5.3 asts); Alyssa Rice, 6-3, C, Jr. (7.3 pts, 5.7 rebs)
Key reserves: Makenzie Cann, 6-1, G, Jr. (11.7 pts, 5.3 rebs); Jessica Hardin, 5-8, G, Sr. (7.3 pts, 2.7 rebs); Jaida Roper, 5-6, PG, Fr. (0.7 pts, 2.7 asts)
Probable starters: Makenzie Ellis, 6-2, F, So. (6.0 pts, 5.0 rebs); Kennedy Leonard, 5-8, PG, So. (23.0 pts, 8.5 asts, 3.5 stls); Alexis Robinson, 5-10, G, So. (19.5 pts, 4.5 asts); Zoe Correal, 6-4, C, Jr. (6.5 pts, 7.0 rebs); Haley Smith, 6-1, F, Sr. (10.0 pts, 5.5 rebs, 3.5 stls)
Key reserves: Eleanor Jones, 6-2, F/C, Fr. (5.5 pts, 3.0 rebs); Ariana Freman, 5-9, G, So. (9.0 pts, 5.0 rebs); Monica Burich, 6-2, F, RFr. (6.0 pts, 5.0 rebs)