Ashton Hagans, who decommitted from Georgia to sign with Kentucky, knew he would face a hostile crowd here Tuesday night.
It was no surprise that Georgia fans booed his name when he was introduced as a UK starter. They chanted “traitor, traitor” each time he shot a free throw.
“He’s going to be mauled by the fans,” UK Coach John Calipari said Monday. “Then it becomes does it inspire him or rattle him. None of us know. Let’s see.”
Hagans scored a career-high 23 points and committed only one turnover in 30-plus minutes in leading Kentucky to a 69-49 victory over Georgia.
“When I heard the crowd booing me, it was just like ‘Let me try to go out here and put on a show,’” Hagans said.
Hagans, who grew up about 100 miles northwest of Athens in Cartersville, Ga., answered the unhappy Georgia fans in fine fashion. He excelled at both ends of the floor.
His four steals gave him 26 in Kentucky’s last six games. They also fueled a 14-4 UK advantage in points off turnovers.
Calipari credited Hagans’ on-ball defense as the key to his team limiting Georgia to 30.4-percent shooting that included 4-for-27 from three-point range. Not counting five early dunks and later four layups and a tip-in, Georgia made seven of 46 shots.
“If you have a guy on the ball that cannot guard the ball, you cannot play defense,” Calipari said. “You’re not going to be a good defensive team. That guy has got to guard the ball, and Ashton can.”
Nick Richards echoed that sentiment.
“The first thing he thinks in his mind is to get steals,” Richards said of Hagans. “He has a knack for it. It comes natural to him. That’s something you don’t have to teach him.”
Kentucky, which improved to 13-3 overall and 3-1 in the Southeastern Conference, led 35-31 at halftime.
The Cats did not have a slow start by the standards of recent early deficits of 10-0 (against Texas A&M) and 16-4 (against Vanderbilt).
Not that Kentucky blazed out of the starting gate. UK had five turnovers inside the first six minutes. In that span, Georgia’s first five baskets were dunks. That combination put the Cats behind 11-6.
“We gave them five dunks. Like, is this going to be a 100-point game?” Calipari said. “The game of basketball, if one guy breaks down, you’re going to struggle. But if two break down, they get five dunks.”
To Calipari’s eyes and ears, the crowd affected Hagans. “It rattled him early, then it inspired him later,” the UK coach said.
Hagans, who boosted his scoring average to 15.8 points in the last five games, saw it differently.
“I wouldn’t say it rattled me,” he said. “I just missed some layups. He took me out. I just got back focused.”
Hagans acknowledged the crowd serving as motivation.
“A little bit,” he said. “Because I felt I wasn’t a traitor.”
Hagans linked his decommitment to Georgia firing Mark Fox as coach. Hagan’s cousin, Trey Thompkins, played for Fox.
“I just felt it was loyalty over everything,” Hagans said of the original commitment to Georgia. “And once he left, I left, too.”
Despite the so-so start, it seemed almost unavoidable that Kentucky would take the lead. Unlikely sources put UK ahead.
Jemarl Baker, who had made two of 12 three-point shots in the last five games, gave Kentucky its first lead. He got in position in the left corner, then took a fast-break pass and hit three-pointer to put UK ahead 13-11 with 12 minutes left.
Forty seconds later, PJ Washington hit a three from the wing. He had made one of 11 three-point shots in the last six games.
Hagans’ back-to-back baskets put Kentucky ahead 33-29 inside the final three minutes of the half.
Hagans continued his personal onslaught as the second half began. He swished a three-pointer as the shot clock buzzed. Then his fast-break layup put Kentucky ahead 40-31 and prompted a Georgia timeout with 17:57 left.
When EJ Montgomery drove the baseline for layup, Kentucky had a 9-0 run to start the second half. That put UK ahead 44-31.
Georgia fans continued booing. To borrow from what Mitch McConnell said about Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren, Hagans persisted. With 11:54 left, he hit another shot as the shot clock buzzed. This time it was a floater in the lane that put UK ahead 49-39.
When asked about barely beating the shot clock, Hagans said, “I can hear Cal ... just counting down. I just felt I should go get it.”
Hagans set a new season-high for points on high style. He rose for a fast-break dunk that put UK ahead 53-39 with 9:49 left. That gave him 19 points, one more than he scored against Texas A&M a week earlier.
“That’s my third dunk,” Hagans said as reporters chuckled. “I used to dunk all the time. It’s a good feeling.”
Another good feeling came when he shot free throws with 4:15 left and Kentucky ahead by 14. A noticeable number of Georgia fans got up from their seats and headed to the exits. There were no boos nor chanting.
After the game, Hagans’ father, Marvin, hugged family members and friends who sat behind the baseline closest to the Kentucky bench. The group numbered 25, the elder Hagans said.
“I was home, so I tried to put on a show for my family,” the UK freshman said.
That the homecoming came with Hagans riding a wave of standout performances made it all the sweeter.
“It made me feel more comfortable,” he said of his good play of late, “because I’m at home playing good in front of the home crowd even though I was getting booed.”
No. 12 Kentucky at No. 14 Auburn
4 p.m Saturday (ESPN)