Watching a game in which their Cardinals could never quite break through, the Yum Center crowd kept clinging to hope wherever they could find it Saturday.
A bucket by Steven Enoch with just under 10 minutes left provided the last glimmer, pulling U of L within nine points of rival Kentucky, a 50-41 score that brought Louisville’s fans to their feet, roaring with delight and rooting on their Cards.
That margin lasted 15 seconds. Ashton Hagans made certain of that.
Hagans — UK’s freshman point guard and the defensive star of the previous weekend’s victory over North Carolina — let loose with an improbable jumper that quieted the crowd. Exactly 30 seconds later — and following a missed three on Louisville’s end — Hagans drove the lane and finished with a layup.
A quieted Card Nation took a collective seat, and their team never got back within single digits.
Hagans had a slow start to this season, coming off the bench for most of it and playing no more than 21 minutes in any game until December. He was often hesitant on offense, struggled to play at multiple speeds and was inconsistent overall.
More recently, he started to emerge as a major defensive threat, gaining praise from John Calipari for his off-the-ball defending against UNC Greensboro, playing a then-career-high 28 minutes that day. Two weeks later, he dished out a career-high seven assists against Utah. The week after that, he tied UK’s all-time record with eight steals — playing a career-high 31 minutes — in that turning-point victory over the Tar Heels.
On Saturday in Louisville, he again excelled on defense, smothering U of L point guard Christen Cunningham at the beginning and finishing with a team-high three steals in a 71-58 win.
There was still some hesitation offensively, though. In the first half, he passed on some open lanes, took a tick too long to get off some open shots. By halftime, he had just one point.
“At the beginning of the game, they were playing me for my pass,” Hagans said of the Cards. “So I came out, and (the coaches) were talking to me, ‘Attack, attack.’ So I just started attacking more. I saw that the lane was open.”
On one play, in particular, Hagans mustered up the confidence to call his own number.
“If you watched him,” Calipari recalled, “he came over and looked at me and said, ‘Coach, fist out.’”
“Run it,” Calipari told him.
“I just saw the lane open, and I took the layup,” Hagans said, finishing the story.
That kind of confidence has been spreading in recent weeks.
“This is becoming a player-driven team,” Calipari said. “They’re not quite empowered yet, because they don’t hold each other accountable enough yet to be empowered totally. But it is a player-driven team. Practices have been player-driven. It’s not me now. It’s not me having to get ‘em going or make ‘em play.”
Oftentimes, it’s Hagans.
“The guys tell me a lot that they need me on the floor, that they feed off me,” he said. “That means a lot to me, knowing that the guys are with me through the whole 40 minutes.”
Hagans tied Tyler Herro with a team-high 10 points in the second half Saturday — he’d never scored more than eight in any full game before that — and played with a confidence that has clearly been lacking on that end of the floor.
The point guard said his coach has “changed things a little bit” offensively, letting his Cats play a “more free” brand of basketball. It’s one that suits Hagans’ speed, creativity and decision-making well, and the results are starting to show.
“Starting off, I was just playing in a little shell,” he said. “Now Cal has opened up the offense more, got us playing a little bit more free. He’s just letting me play my game more.”
Herro — not at all shy on the offensive end — said Hagans has shown what he’s capable of in practice. Now, everyone else is getting to see it. According to Herro, the rest of the Cats have been telling Hagans to keep making plays for them, but to look for his own scoring opportunities, too. “He’s been looking to pass too much,” Herro said. Calipari has apparently said the same.
“With him playing downhill and getting to the bucket, doing what he does, it’s incredible for us,” Herro added. “What he did tonight, and what he did against North Carolina, we’re starting to see what Ashton is really about and what he’s capable of doing.”
Hagans already has a defensive ability that Louisville head coach Chris Mack called “dominant” the day before Saturday’s game. Now, he might be finding an offensive identity that could make these Wildcats scary indeed.
“I love defense, so that’s just what I try to work on more,” Hagans said. “Because I know that I can bring it on the defensive side and help my teammates get the easy basket. But I’m just trying to work on my game more on the offensive end. Get my shot better, and just keep attacking.
“As it goes along, I’m just staying in the gym working on my shot. I’ve been getting in the gym with coaches. But I just have to keep building my confidence.”
That jumper against the Cards on Saturday — the one that had Louisville fans looking for their seats — must have been quite the confidence-builder.
“Yeah, yeah, yeah,” Hagans said, his smile getting bigger with each affirmation. “Definitely.”