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Ashton Hagans is becoming the elite defender UK needs for a Final Four run

Drew Brown - Sea of Blue

Ashton Hagans doesn’t get the national notoriety that fellow freshmen Tyler Herro and Keldon Johnson receive, but his contributions on the court are just as important.

Hagans had a school-tying eight steals against the North Carolina Tar Heels during the Kentucky Wildcats win on Saturday. Hagans’ defense was contagious, and his elite-level defense will be essential if the Cats hope to make a run in March.

“Having him out there with energy, just doing what he does best — getting us all involved. His defensive presence is amazing,” said Keldon Johnson after the game. “He was locking up, picking up, making big plays, making big stops. You could just see it rubbing off on everybody.”

I’ve been singing Hagans’ praises for the past several weeks, and today’s game against UNC was further proof of how important he is to UK’s success this season. Hagans has locked down opponents for the past several weeks, and his matchup against the North Carolina backcourt was no different.

The staring guard tandem of Coby White and Kenny Williams was held to 7-of-21 (33%) shooting and turned the ball over four times.

Hagans was a defensive hound for the entire 31 minutes he played. In addition to his eight steals, he also had four rebounds and a block.

What made the game even more amazing was Hagans sprained his ankle in the first half and had to leave the game briefly. You never would have known it, as he gave it his all until the final seconds ticked off.

Offensively, Hagans is not going to light the world on fire. He was 2-of-6 from the field and finished with just seven points, He also had just three assists, but if you watched the game, you saw him make a number of great passes that led to high-quality shots.

Even North Carolina coach Roy Williams felt the freshman dominated the game.

“The amazing thing to look down and Ashton Hagans is 2-for-6, seven points, and I thought in some ways he was more dominating in the game than anybody,” Williams said.

Hagans also had 5 turnovers in the game, and one late in the game almost allowed UNC to close the gap to six points with just under a minute left. He must take better care of the basketball going forward.

However, there is no denying Hagans’ defensive prowess. If the Wildcats have any hope of making some noise in March, they’re going to need Hagans to continue to put constant pressure on the basketball as he has for the past several games.

“When Ashton’s doing that, being hectic on defense, we’re going to be tough to beat just because what he puts on the team when we’re playing like that,” said Tyler Herro. “He played great tonight, and we expect that from him every night.”

Hagans doesn’t have to be a score-first point guard like Brandon Knight, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander or John Wall. The Cats have players like Herro, Johnson, PJ Washington, and Reid Travis who can put the ball in the basket.

Come March, anyone who follows college basketball knows that guard-play becomes of the utmost importance. Having a lockdown defender like Hagans can be the difference and may help UK win some games they might otherwise lose. Not because of his scoring ability, but rather his ability to pressure the ball and keep opposing teams from scoring.

The Wildcats were a different team when Hagans was on the bench and Immanuel Quickley was running the show. It was obvious down the stretch who Coach Cal trusted with the ball, and it’s obvious that Ashton Hagans is now the unquestioned starting point guard for the Kentucky Wildcats, and it will hopefully lead to a lot of postgame locker rooms like we saw Saturday.