Hagans finds defensive stride in UNCG win


Kentucky freshman guard Ashton Hagans guards a UNGC player during the game on Saturday, Dec. 1, 2018, at Rupp Arena in Lexington, Kentucky. Kentucky won 78-61. Photo by Jordan Prather | Staff

As the Cats are starting to figure things out and heat up defensively, so is freshman guard Ashton Hagans. The former Gatorade Georgia Player of the Year had a breakthrough defensive game in Kentucky’s win over UNC Greensboro and showed what he brings to the table as a defender for the Wildcats.

When Hagans was on the floor, his biggest task was to defend UNCG’s senior guard Francis Alfonso, who came out of the gate and scored the Spartans’ first 11 points of the game. By halftime, Alfonso had 19 of his team’s 40 points.

Hagans wasn’t a starter for the Cats, so freshman guard Keldon Johnson had the job of guarding Alfonso at the start of the game, which was actually a mistake according to head coach John Calipari.

“We were wrong. No, he was not supposed to start on him and we were down 5-0 because we put the wrong guy on him in the locker room,” Calipari said after the game.

Kentucky’s Tyler Herro, who was supposed to start out guarding Alfonso and did after Calipari made the switch, says the coaches weren’t on the same page. After a few possessions of Herro on him, Calipari put Hagans on the court.

“But what I liked with Ashton, it’s not what he did offensively,” Calipari said. “We put him on number 10 (Alfonso). We said, we can either let the kid get 60 or put Ashton on him, and then Ashton made him work to get shots and run, and all of a sudden you’re into their legs. They had to take him out a few times.”

Alfonso, after scoring 19 on 4-of-4 three-point shooting in the first half, was limited to just one three in the second half due to Hagans shutting him down. Calipari says it’s his athleticism and physicality that set him apart from other Kentucky players being able to defend Alonso. UNCG head coach Wes Miller believes it’s Hagans’ on-ball pressure.

“Well I think his on-ball pressure in the back court is where it starts and he’s got long arms, got great feet, and so he makes it difficult for you to get the ball off the floor and you know, enter the ball into our offense…” Miller said. “When a guy like Hagans checks in it’s really difficult.”

After putting on a defensive show in the second half, Hagans displayed his offensive abilities around the 10:30 mark when he got a rebound after a UNCG miss, drove down the court, made a layup to tie the game and drew a foul in the process.

Calipari says the team learned something after the game: Hagans is on the tough guys from now on.

“I told the team after the game, so what’s just been proven is another team gets going with an individual player, what are we going to do as a team? We’re putting Ashton on him, so Ashton, I’d come in every day and work so hard at my defense so that I know I’m getting my minutes,” Calipari said.