‘It Starts with Ashton’: Hagans’ Breakout Continues
The opening minutes had the hallmarks of the kind of performance John Calipari worries about when one of his players goes home.
Playing about 100 miles from his native Cartersville, Georgia, Ashton Hagans missed his first four shots and six of his first seven.
Rest easy, Coach Cal, because that wasn’t about to stop Hagans from playing his game.
“It rattled him early and it inspired him later,” Calipari said. “But early on, I had to get him out. He missed a couple layups, was rushing a little bit and then he settled in and played the way he needs to play for him and us.”
Hagans was terrific in his homecoming, overcoming his slow start to lead No. 12/14 Kentucky (13-3, 3-1 Southeastern Conference) past Georgia (9-7, 1-3 SEC), 69-49. The freshman point guard was the best player on the floor, posting a career-high 23 points to go with five rebounds, four assists and four steals.
“I’m built for this, so I just tried to go out there, play my game, attack the basket,” Hagans said. “If they’re sagging off me, just try to knock down a shot. That’s just coming with being in the gym. Being under Cal, he’s a hard coach. You know every day he wants you to play hard. I just love this game and I’m just happy to be home.”
Had Georgia not parted ways with Mark Fox, Hagans would be playing at home full-time as a Bulldog. A former Georgia commit, Hagans reached out to the Kentucky coaching staff after the coaching change to express interest in becoming a Wildcat. That led to plenty of attention being directed his way by Georgia fans Tuesday night, but Hagans wasn’t fazed.
“First, starting off with having my teammates on my side and just knowing them guys were with me the whole 40 minutes,” Hagans said. “It’s no hate. Coach Fox left so I just changed my mind. … I still love Dawg Nation, but I’m a Wildcat now.”
With the way Hagans has transformed this Kentucky team – particularly on defense – the Big Blue Nation is thankful for that fact.
“It starts with Ashton, to be honest with you,” Calipari said. “It starts with him. Last year it started with Shai (Gilgeous-)Alexander. If you have a guy on the ball that cannot guard the ball, you cannot play defense. You’re not going to have a good defensive team. That guy’s gotta be able to guard the ball. And Ashton can.”
Hagans has now tallied three or more steals in six straight games, becoming the first Wildcat in program history who has done that. He has 26 steals over that stretch – during which UK has gone 5-1 and posted its best five wins – after he had a mere 10 over the first 10 games of his college career.
And now his offense is making a similar leap.
After his 1-of-7 start from the field, Hagans made 8-of-11 field goals and 4-of-5 free throws to help overcome a scoreless evening for Keldon Johnson, UK’s leading scorer. Hagans has now improved on his career high in scoring in four of his last five outings, averaging 15.8 points in the process. Prior to those five games, Hagans was averaging 3.8 points per game.
“Just staying in the gym, working on your craft,” Hagans said. “That’s what I’ve been doing lately. I’m just trying to get to the next level. That’s why I made the decision to go with Cal, but I’m home so I had to try to put on a show.”
Mission accomplished on that front. By the time the game was over, the only fans left making noise in Stegeman Coliseum were blue-clad ones chanting “Go Big Blue” and Hagans’ massive personal cheering section, which numbered about 20 and included his father, Marvin.
“I feel like they were very excited,” Hagans said. “My dad, I don’t think he sat down the whole game. I saw him back there the whole game. He was just telling me keep my foot on the pedal. That’s what I tried to do. I just showed out for my family.”
A post shared by Kentucky Men’s Basketball (@kentuckymbb) on Jan 15, 2019 at 7:32pm PST