By LARRY VAUGHT
A review of Saturday’s Kentucky-North Carolina game has put freshman Ashton Hagans’ name into the Kentucky record book.
After the review he was credited with an eighth steal to tie the Kentucky single game mark set by Wayne Turner in 1997 and tied by Rajon Rondo in 2005.
“I think on defense, really tough to beat. Just the way he puts it on every team,” UK freshman Tyler Herro said about Hagans’ defense after UK’s 80-72 win. “He played great tonight and we expect that from him every night.”
“His defensive presence is amazing,” freshman Keldon Johnson said. “You seen it all. He was locking up, making plays, big stops and you could just see it rubbing off on everybody.”
Kentucky coach John Calipari certainly has seen that coming. Hagans had seven points, four rebounds, three assists and one block in 31 minutes to nullify his five turnovers.
“I’m putting the ball in his hands and he’s making the right plays, and it was a small tweak that we made about a week ago and when I watched it, I said, ‘Okay, we got this now.’ And he’s making the game easy for everybody,” Calipari said after Saturday’s win.
“Now he did jog it up a little bit today when I got on him but the reality of it is it’s kind of like a pressing team. You press a pressing team and if a team is a speed team, you go right back at him with speed which is what we’re trying to do today. But he’s really, you know, he’s making strides.”
But it reminded me of what Sporting News columnist Mike DeCourcy said about Hagans after UK’s four exhibition games in the Bahamas in August.
“I don’t know think I have seen many players with hands like that. He just has a real feel for how to get the basketball away from his opponent. One of the ways you can measure this is by the number of different angles he takes when he was taking he ball away from guys. It isn’t always the same thing and not many guys can do that,” DeCourcy said.
No they cannot. Just ask North Carolina coach Roy Williams.
“Scouting report said he was a really good on the ball defender. Saw him in high school and really liked him in high school,” Williams said. “He’s a really gifted young man and works really hard, too. I don’t know if he’s the one that got it. I think it was a 6-point game, we get the rebound, and just make a simple pass, and I’m not sure if he’s the one that got the steal or not.
“A guy that sees the defense. He’s a gifted youngster and his shooting percentage from deep is not good, but where he attacks the basket and passes the ball and defends like crazy and plays with a reckless abandon.”
Hagans is only 1-for-7 from 3-point range this season and has scored just 42 points in 11 games. But he leads the team in assists (34) and steals (18). He’s also first in turnovers with 23. Freshman point guard Immanuel Quickley is a better 3-point shooter and scorer. He also has fewer turnovers in more minutes of play.
But Hagans’ defense is special, much like what DeAndre Liggins provided for the 2011 Final Four team.
“If Hagans’ offensive game catches up with his defensive game ,UK could be scary good heading into the second part of the season,” former UK point guard Anthony Epps, who played on UK’s 1996 national title team and 1997 team that lost in the national title game, posted on Twitter.
Does he have to really score if his defense continues to get better to where he can lock down a star opponent or disrupt a whole offense?
“Will have to score because teams will start laying off him and then your playing four on five on the offensive end,” Epps said.
But he can get to the basket to score. If he can do that, pass to open teammates and be defensive stopper, then he will elevate UK to the level it played at Saturday consistently.