Ashton Hagans, who decommitted from Georgia to sign with Kentucky, had to know what he faced here Tuesday night.
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.
Hagans, who grew up in Cartersville, Ga., which is about 100 miles northwest of Athens, answered the unhappy Georgia fans in fine fashion. He excelled at both ends of the floor.
A telling moment 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 mention of a traitor.
Kentucky improved to 13-3 overall and 3-1 in the Southeastern Conference.
Georgia, which struggled to make a shot all night, fell to 9-7 overall and 1-3 in the SEC. The Bulldogs made four of 27 shots, and only 12 of 49 shots that weren’t dunks, layups or tip-ins.
Kentucky 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.
Thereafter, Georgia struggled with any shot that wasn’t a dunk or a layup. For the rest of the half, the Bulldogs made only three of 21 shot of any range beyond two feet of the basket.
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 equaled Washington’s team-high of eight points in the first half. He made only three of 10 shots, but his 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.
Nothing much changed. Georgia turned the ball over on its next possession, which culminated with another fast-break layup by Hagans.
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.
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.
Tellingly, Georgia fans erupted in boos one more more. It came with UK ahead by 18 points inside the final two minutes. The UK fans in Stegeman Coliseum began a “Go Big Blue” chant.
No. 12 Kentucky at No. 14 Auburn
4 p.m Saturday (ESPN)