With UNC Greensboro guard Francis Alonso hitting every shot he took, Kentucky Coach John Calipari and staff reduced Saturday’s game to a stark fork in the basketball road.
“We can either let the kid get 60 or put Ashton (Hagans) on him,” Calipari said of the in-game strategizing by UK’s brain trust.
Kentucky chose the latter. Kentucky won 78-61. It was almost that simple.
“Ashton made him work to get shots, and run,” Calipari said. “And all of a sudden you’re into their legs. They had to take him out a few times.”
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Alonso, a senior guard from Malaga, Spain, outplayed UK’s multi-star products of the United States recruiting process. His 22 points helped UNC Greensboro lead for much of the first 30 minutes and had to make fans of recruiting wonder how the recruiting analysts in Spain say “star” in their ratings (they say la estrella).
Kentucky, which is ranked No. 10, improved to 7-1 by pulling away in the second half. UK limited UNC Greensboro to one basket for more than eight minutes.
Alonso went scoreless the final 16:10 as Hagans made a claim as UK’s defensive stopper. Alonso missed his final five shots (two from three-point range).
“He just takes a lot of pride in defense,” teammate Reid Travis said of Hagans.
When asked to divulge the secret to Hagans’ effectiveness as a defender, Tyler Herro said, “I don’t think it’s a secret any more. He’s one of the best defenders in the country. We’ve been saying that for a while now. He showed it again tonight.”
Alonso, an all-Southern Conference selection last season, was no secret either. He came into the game as UNC Greensboro’s leading scorer (19.0 points per game) and a player shooting with 46.2-percent accuracy from three-point range.
For the first time since the opener against Duke, Kentucky trailed at halftime. The 40-37 deficit at intermission paled next to the 59-42 avalanche Duke inflicted on UK. But Alonso looked capable of leading UNC Greensboro to victory. He had a hand in 23 of UNC Greensboro’s 40 points. He scored 19 points and had two assists.
“I think he can shoot it as good as anybody in college basketball,” UNC Greensboro Coach Wes Miller said of Alonso before the game.
Kentucky went through several defenders trying to contain Alonso. Keldon Johnson started on Alonso. That didn’t last long. After Alonso drove to a score and then hit a three-pointer on the Spartans’ first two possessions, a change seemed imminent.
“We were wrong,” Calipari said of starting Johnson on Alonso. “No, he was not supposed to start on him. And we were down 5-0 because we put the wrong guy on him in the locker room. I’m, like, why is Keldon guarding this guy? Because I knew who was supposed to be guarding him.
“Well, prior to the game, somebody said you’re guarding him. ... I’m, like, wait a minute. We just gave up five points because we have the wrong guy on him? You’ve got to be kidding me. That’s literally what happened.”
Herro, who said afterward that he defended the Alonso stand-in during the pre-game shootaround, switched onto Alonso. That failed, too. Alonso scored UNC Greensboro’s first 11 points.
Enter Hagans. The freshman from Cartersville, Ga., made a strong case for being UK’s defensive stopper on the perimeter. He blocked Alonso’s funky one-footed fade-away from the foul line area. That was the only shot Alonso missed in a 5-for-6 shooting half (four of four from three-point range).
Late in the half, Alonso further riled UK fans when he got a foul call by leaning into Quade Green on an unlikely-looking three-point shot. The foul call on Green sparked boos from the crowd.
Kentucky did not pull away early in the second half. A memorable 80-foot drive by Hagans put UK ahead 56-55 with 10:28 left. It was UK’s first lead since the 2:02 mark of the first half.
Hagans changed direction twice en route to the basket, then made a layup while being fouled.
The lead lasted 24 seconds. Neither team seemed likely to pull away this day. But with Alonso holstered, Kentucky pulled away by holding UNC Greensboro without a point in the final 3:23 and to just three baskets in the final 13:05.
“What’s just been proven is if another team gets going with an individual player, what are we going to do as a team?” Calipari said. “We’re putting Ashton on him.”
No. 10 Kentucky vs. Seton Hall
Noon Saturday in City Hoops Classic in Madison Square Garden in New York (Fox)