The secret to Kentucky’s comeback was simple: defense. In the first half, UNC Greensboro’s Francis Alonso had 19 points; in the second half, he only managed three. Ashton Hagans took over guarding Alonso and held him scoreless over the final fifteen minutes.
“I would say [it was a breakthrough],” John Calipari said of Ashton’s performance. “What I like with Ashton, it’s not what he did offensively. We put him on No. 10 [Alonso]. 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. I’ll tell you, Ashton was cramping up too and said, I have to come out, my leg’s cramping. But he played that hard.”
“I was trying my best,” Hagans told Mike Pratt. “I was just trying to see what he was doing and I finally figured out he was just running around trying to get open. When I had him I was trying to make sure he didn’t get a shot off because he was making everything today. I was just trying to play my defense.”
Hagans said the key to Kentucky’s defense in the second half was better communication, perhaps inspired by the new “Kill” system Calipari implemented in practice.
“It wasn’t really Cal, it was my teammates pushing me, just telling me to play defense, stay on him so we can get this W. Really, my teammates just kept me going. Quade, Immanuel, PJ, Reid. We talked way more this game than we talked the other games. The kills, we added the kill thing. Three stops, that’s a kill. That’s all we talked about when we huddled on the court, just trying to get better on the defensive side of the ball.”
Spartans’ head coach Wes Miller said his team prepared for Hagans, but couldn’t get past him in the second half.
“We saw that in scouting that when he checks in the game, they build their pressure out to 94 feet. He’s got active hands. That’s the main thing we talked about in scouting was the impact he has on the game defensively and I think he’ll be able to do that to just about anybody in the country this year.”
What makes Ashton so good defensively?
“I think his on-ball pressure in the backcourt is where it starts,” Miller said. “He’s got long arms and great feet. He makes it difficult for you to get the ball up the floor and enter the ball into your offense. We do quite a few things where we try to bring Alonso and others off of screens and it puts some pressure on our point guard to handle the ball. ”
“When a guy like Hagans checks in, it’s really difficult.”