Following a few weeks of lackluster play, Kentucky got their point guard back against Tennessee. After a bit of a jittery start, Ashton Hagans settled in for a great game against the No. 1 Vols. He set the pace, limited Tennessee point guard Jordan Bone (who had a good game, but was especially limited in transition, where the Volunteers scored just two baskets) and was able to feed Kentucky’s big men in the post. By the end of the game, he recorded nine points, seven assists, two steals, two rebounds and just one turnover in 36 minutes.
“Ashton today played like he had been playing,” John Calipari said after the game. “For two games, he went downhill and it affected us last game. And in this game, he came back.”
Referencing two “downhill” games may even be a bit conservative. In fact, before the Tennessee matchup, Calipari called out Hagans’ performances over the past three games.
“Ashton, the last three games, has not played well. As a matter of fact, he’s not played well at all,” Calipari said Friday before the game. “So [Tennessee] is a game where we’re going to need him to get back where he was 10 days ago, 12 days ago; where everybody was talking about him being the best on-ball defender in the country. A difference-maker; a creator.”
Saturday night, he was just that – a difference maker, especially on the defensive end.
“We need him on the defensive end. He’s the best part of our defense – he starts it,” PJ Washington said of Hagans. “Without him, we’re not really good on the defensive end. For him to pick up the opposing guards like that is crazy.”
For him to play his best, Calipari had to light a fire under Hagans. He did so by showing the team a compilation of the North Carolina game, specifically nine clips of Ashton Hagans’ best work. The clips included the possession where Hagans was “diving, tipping, fell into the stands, the bench and then came down and stole the ball,” according to Calipari.
“And what I basically said is… We don’t have this guy anymore. I don’t know where this guy went, but if we ever got him back we would be really good,” Cal said. “That’s who you were, now you chose to change. We don’t know why, but you chose to be somebody different.”
Against UNC, Hagans finished with eight steals, four rebounds, three assists and one block, while hitting two baskets and going 3-4 from the free-throw line for seven points. North Carolina may have been his breakout game of the season, but he hit his stride during his three-game stretch against Texas A&M, Vanderbilt and Georgia, when he scored 18, 15 and 23 points, respectively. But after his homecoming trip to Athens, he started to slip. Against Tennessee, he was back to his mid-season self.
“We just know Ashton is such an important piece for our team,” Keldon Johnson said of his point guard after the win. “When he’s at the top of his game, we’re a very good team. We feed off his defense – when he’s disruptive, everybody is disruptive… He was playing like we know he can play, and he’s amazing.”
But playing to his potential didn’t come easy for the Wildcat. Calipari said Hagans was one of two players who were really cramping up during the game (the other was PJ Washington), a sign of going “harder than he’s gone all year.”
“That’s why you cramp up – you went harder now,” Calipari said. “Like Kenny Payne was saying, we probably need to get seven percent more conditioning to bump this up so that we can play in a bunch of games. When you have back-to-back like this on a Thursday/Saturday or a Friday/Sunday, and you have this kind of game and you’ve got to follow it up with another one. Whew, I’m not sure we have that right now.”
Calipari, always the optimist. Regardless, welcome back, Ashton Hagans. The BBN is happy to have you.