Ashton Hagans had a career night in a return to his home state.
The Kentucky freshman guard scored a career-high 23 points to lead the 12th-ranked Wildcats to a 69-49 win over Georgia Tuesday night in Athens.
Hagans, Georgia’s Gatorade Player of the Year and Mr. Basketball last season, de-committed from the Bulldogs after a coaching change last spring and chose to sign with Kentucky. The move has produced big dividends for both parties.
As for his most recent performance, Hagans credited his teammates for keeping him on an even keel.
“I had my teammates on my side,” Hagans said in a postgame interview on ESPN. “I still love Bulldog nation, but I’m a Wildcat now.”
Hagans, the reigning Southeastern Conference Freshman of the Week, added four assists, five rebounds and three steals for the Wildcats, who increased their conference winning streak to three games and notched their 12th consecutive victory over the Bulldogs.
Hagans is the first player in school history to collect at least three steals in six straight games.
“He’s gotten really better,” Kentucky sophomore Nick Richards said Monday. “He’s playing both sides of the court. He’s getting points, steals, rebounds, assists. He’s playing really great.”
Kentucky (13-3, 3-1) trailed by double figures in its last two conference games but never trailed by no more than five points. Overall, the Wildcats led for nearly 31 minutes and limited the Bulldogs (9-7, 1-3) to just 18 points in the second half.
Tyler Herro followed Hagans with 12 points as three Kentucky players finished in double figures. PJ Washington added 10 points for the Wildcats. Kentucky leading scorer Keldon Johnson (15.5 points per game) was held scoreless for the first time in his career. Johnson missed six field goal attempts but grabbed three rebounds and had two assists.
Kentucky got 18 points from its bench, led by Jemarl Baker and EJ Montgomery, who combined for 12. Baker tied a career-high with two 3-pointers and six points, while Richards chipped in with four points and seven rebounds. Richards added three blocks.
Richards said earlier this week, he’s been focusing on blocking shots in practice.
“Coach is basically emphasizing that if I’m a rim protector, we’re probably going to win a national championship,” Richards said. “That’s one of the key things we need to win a national championship, is a rim protector.”
Nicolas Claxton paced Georgia with 12 points, followed by Rayshaun Hammonds with 11.
Gametracker: Kentucky at Auburn, 4 p.m., Saturday. TV/Radio: ESPN, UK Radio Network.
Keith Taylor is sports editor for Kentucky Today. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or twitter @keithtaylor21.