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Ashton Hagans is finding his fit on defense

“He’s physical. He’s more athletic. He can stay in front of people.”

Ashton Hagans Jason Marcum - Sea of Blue

Ashton Hagans has started off this 2018-19 basketball season a bit slower than many fans thought he would. However, now 8 games into the young season, Hagans looks to be impressing his teammates and his coach, especially on the defensive end of the floor.

Hagans started the season as Kentucky’s starting point guard. He took the floor with the first unit in UK’s first game against Duke. Like every player on the Wildcats that night, Hagans looked overwhelmed. He has not started a game since, but it appears the young guard is starting to turn a corner.

Hagans had his best offensive performance of the season against Monmouth. Hagans played 20 minutes, scored 7 points on 2-of-3 shooting including a three-pointer. Hagans also passed out 3 assists, grabbed 2 boards, and had 1 steal.

Hagans is not going to drop 20-plus on an opponent. Frankly, he doesn’t need to. Players like Quade Green, Keldon Johnson, Reid Travis, PJ Washington, and EJ Montgomery can provide all the scoring that Kentucky needs to win. Hagans is, however, going to make it hard on opposing players to score.

Hagans was a big reason why Kentucky walked out of Rupp Arena with a win against the UNC-Greensboro Spartans on Saturday afternoon. Though the boxscore won’t really show it, the game changed when Hagans took the floor.

The Kentucky Wildcats fell behind early to UNC-Greensboro, as the Spartans, led by their senior guard Francis Alonso, jumped out to a 13-9 lead behind 11 points from their star player. Coach Cal brought in Hagans and it paid immediate dividends, as the Spartans came up short on three straight possessions and UK went on a 13-4 run.

After starting the game 4-of-4, Alonso finished 6-of-12. Meaning once Hagans was subbed in for Immanuel Quickely, he shut down a player who ESPN’s Jimmy Dykes was salivating over throughout the game.

“What I liked with Ashton, it’s not what he did offensively,” said John Calipari after the win. “We put him on No. 10. 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.”

Hagans was covering Alonso for the majority of the game, as evidence by the 28 minutes he played. When asked about what made Hagans special, Calipari offered this:

“He’s physical. He’s more athletic. He can stay in front of people. He gave him one shot, if you remember, in front of their bench where he guarded him with his hands down and the kid made a three. Short of that, he guarded him, and I told the team after the game, so what’s just been proven is if 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.”

Green played only 8 minutes in Saturday’s game, and Quickley saw only 17 minutes of action. Hagans did a fine job of running the offense, getting the ball to his playmakers, and playing lockdown defense on Alonso.

“He (Hagans) stepped it up, and we were all just behind him,” said Keldon Johnson. “If Francis (Alonso) happened to beat him off the dribble, we were right there to help him out, try to make sure he could get back in front of him and guard him to best of his ability.”

Don’t be surprised to see Hagans get the start in UK’s game against Seton Hall next Saturday. Myles Powell leads the Pirates in scoring with 24.3 points per game. Look for Hagans to draw that assignment when these two teams clash in Madison Square Garden for the Citi Hoops Classic.