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Ashton Hagans and Nick Richards gutted it out to beat Michigan State

We all knew Richards was hurt, but Hagans had his own injury as well.

Ashton Hagans, Nick Richards Jamie Boggs - Sea of Blue

One of the few returning players from last year’s Elite Eight roster, Ashton Hagans suited up against Michigan State is what could be a terrific start to his sophomore season. After a great start to the game, it was obvious something was bothering the team’s leader as the game wore on.

After the game, John Calipari revealed Hagans was playing through a leg injury he sustained against Kentucky State in the team’s final exhibition. It actually required an MRI but turned out to be nothing more than a strain.

“He’s hurt. His leg has been bothering him for about four or five days,” said Calipari. “But he’s such, I don’t know if you saw whoever we played. He got kneed, kicked in the head. And if you saw it you would’ve said ‘wow’ and he just kinda bounced up. He is really tough.

“For him to say his leg is bothering him, and we’ve had the MRI, we’ve had everything done. There’s nothing there. It’s more of a strain, a muscle thing. And I just kept telling him ‘take yourself out, tell me when you’re ready to go.’”

Hagans gutted through the injury and even hit two clutch free throws in the final minute to help ice the game, but it sounds like he’d reached his limit at that point.

“That last free throw he made, he looked at me like ‘take me out.’ And EJ ran out,” said Calipari. “So he stayed on the court. But he’s a really mentally, physically tough kid.”

Hagans played 29 of a possible 40 minutes, the fourth-most for Kentucky, finishing with 11 points on 3/9 shooting, including five of the Wildcats’ first 11 points in the game. He also had a team-high three assists, but he missed several layups at the rim that he has to hit to take his game to another level, but perhaps the injury affected that.

Overall, we don’t know the limitations that Hagans will be on with his lower-leg. injury for the team’s next game against Eastern Kentucky this Friday, but it doesn’t sound like it will be a long-term issue.

Hagans wasn’t the only Wildcat playing through injury. Going into the game, it was unclear if Nick Richards would be able to go after suffering an ankle injury just over a week before the Champions Classic. It looked bad enough that Richards could have ended up missing several weeks, but he was able to recover and play through it vs. the Spartans.

Richards played 25 minutes and finished with seven points, four rebounds and played physical defense in the post, which helped limit Spartans star Xavier Tillman to just seven points on 3/8 shooting.

To put that in perspective, Tillman racked up 19 points on 8/12 shooting vs. Zion Williamson and Duke in the Elite Eight last year, so Richards being able to play through his injury and help keep Tillman contained was a difference-maker in a game that saw Kentucky only leading 62-60 with just over a minute left.

Saying this, Calipari admitted that he kept Richards in too long since the junior center essentially did no basketball-related activities for the last week while he rehabbed.

“There’s no way he should’ve played 25 minutes,” said Calipari. “He hadn’t done anything – when did we play Georgetown?. He literally hadn’t done anything in 10 days. For him to play that many minutes. He fought through so that was really good to see.”

It takes a lot of heart to beat the No. 1 team, and it was clear these Cats were giving it everything they had to score this massive victory.