By LARRY VAUGHT
He got booed almost the entire game and even called a traitor when he was at the foul line. But if anything bothered Kentucky freshman Ashton Hagans Tuesday, it sure didn’t show in a Kentucky’s 69-49 win over Georgia in Athens, Ga.
Hagans, a one-time Georgia commit, had a career-high 23 points, five rebounds, four assists and three steals in his return to his home state. After missing six of his first seven shots, he made eight of his last 11. He also had three or more steals in a sixth straight game to extend his own UK record.
If that wasn’t enough, he also had just one turnover and one foul in 35 sensational minutes.
Kentucky coach John Calipari thought the crowd “rattled” Hagans early but inspired him later in the game.
“I still love Dawg Nation but I am a Wildcat now,” Hagains told ESPN sideline reporter Laura Rutledge after the game. “I just tried to play my game, attack the basket. If they were sagging off me, just knock down my shot. I just love this game.
“I am home, so I had to put on a show. I don’t think my dad sat down the whole game. I just showed out for my family.”
Hagans took over the game to start the second half when he scored seven straight points and then had an assist to EJ Montgomery to key a 9-0 UK run that turned a 35-31 halftime lead into a 44-31 advantage that effectively broke the game open.
“Georgia cannot keep him out of the paint. He is going wherever he wants to go,” ESPN analyst Jimmy Dykes said.
He was right, too. Georgia had no answer for Hagans, who has become a disruptor on offense as well as defense.
The best news for Kentucky, though, was that Hagans had so much help that leading scorer Keldon Johnson going 0-for-6 from the field and failing to score — he had not been below eight points in UK first 14 games — did not put the Cats in jeopardy.
“No one will think less of him. He’s one of our best players, You have those nights,” Calipari said about Johnson.
Freshman Tyler Herro had a routine 12 points on 4-for-10 shooting, seven rebounds and four assists. PJ Washington had 10 points on 4-for-6 shooting and six rebounds.
But here was the best part — UK’s bench was terrific.
— Sophomore Nick Richards played with the energy he’s lacked way too often. He had four points on 2-for-5 shooting, seven rebounds and three blocks in 15 minutes. He didn’t have a turnover and committed just one foul. He also made several hustle plays that saved possessions for UK.
Calipari said for a change, Richards just played and did not try too hard as he has at times in previous games.
— Freshman EJ Montgomery had six points on 3-for-6 shooting, six rebounds and one block in 14 minutes.
“You got to get in there and fight. Today was really good,” Calipari said.
— Redshirt freshman Jemarl Baker went 2-for-2 from 3-point range in 13 minutes and also had one rebound, steal and one assist.
Kentucky’s defense overwhelmed the Bulldogs in the second half. Georgia missed its final nine shots and missed 39 of 56 shots despite making five of its first six. It was the second straight game where UK has held an opponent under 50 points.
It was also the third straight win for UK after the Cats dropped their SEC opener at Alabama. The Cats moved up in the national rankings this week and are looking better to national analysts like Dykes.
“Definitely a second weekend if not further,” Dykes said when speculating on UK’s NCAA Tournament potential. “They have the pieces for a Final Four run.”