ATHENS, Ga. — On one end, you could tell what kind of night it was going to be for Ashton Hagans even before the tip off at Georgia’s Stegeman Coliseum this past Tuesday.
As Hagans — Kentucky’s freshman point guard who spurned a commitment to UGA after the firing of former coach Mark Fox — trotted out onto the court with the rest of his UK teammates, he was met with a hearty chorus of boos.
Ok, so perhaps that was just a one time thing, right? Nope. From there, each time Hagans touched the ball, even in warm ups, the UGA student section heckled him heartily.
This would continue into Tuesday night’s game with a now full arena and partisan Georgia crowd jumping on the boo Hagans bandwagon every chance they got. At one point, the student section chanted “traitor, traitor,” as Hagans would go to the free throw line.
On one particular trip to the charity stripe, Hagans silenced those chants with two made free throws. And that's where the other side of the story begins.
Turns out Hagans' crowd-silencing act early on at the free throw line would be a sign of things to come.
Hagans admits that it took a little time for him to adjust to the vitriolic homecoming response. But once he adjusted, he quickly began to remind the Bulldog faithful why they actually had hoped to be cheering the 6-foot-4 former 5-star floor general as he donned red and white instead of booing him.
“I wouldn’t say it rattled me, you know. I just missed some layups early on,” Hagans said. “Coach (John Calipari) took me out, and then I just got back focused and went back in to play my game. He told me to let him know when I was ready to go back in.”
He also prepped him on what to expect from the raucous Georgia crowd that wanted nothing more than to see the once-Georgia committed Hagans go down to the team he spurned.
“Coach Cal was just telling the guys to be on my side and to fight with me,” he said. “He told me what was going to happen, about being booed. He said the exact things that they would say, traitor and all that. But I was with my brothers and it was all good.”
Hagans was good. Good to the tune of his fourth career high point total in the last five games — this time, it was 23 points.
He was good to the tune of five rebounds, four assists, three steals and a nifty alley-oop toss to fellow Georgia product, and former Wheeler star, EJ Montgomery who slammed it home emphatically, midway through the second half.
By that time, No. 12 Kentucky was up by more than a dozen points, the crowd’s sizzle had subsided and the boos that followed Hagans around the court were all but gone. And everybody in the building, regardless of whether they were dressed in red or blue, were reminded why this kid was such a hot commodity — the nation’s top point guard prospect — coming out of Newton High.
As for Hagans? He was simply reminded that fans will be fans, and that his game can talk louder than his lips, although he did finally acknowledge the jeers from the crowd juiced him up a bit.
“A little bit, you know,” he said with a wry smile. “I felt like I wasn’t a traitor, but that’s what everyone said. And, you know, fans are gonna be fans on the road. But I was home, even though they were booing me, and I was just trying to put on a show for my family.”
And that he did. But the way he played Tuesday night looked to be a culmination of all the elements of his game that had shown isolated flashes previously.
Except for the first couple of minutes of the game, Hagans looked in control of the offense, was his normal stalwart self on defense and got himself together emotionally to where he showed glimpses of his days dominating in Georgia high school gyms.
And the fact that Tuesday’s performance marked Hagans’ fifth straight double-digit scoring output truly made him feel at home.
“You know, coach has just been putting me in the role, letting me have the ball more to find the open guys,” he said. “I’m going back to playing my game like in high school. Finding my shooters, attacking the basket, looking for my bigs. But I’m just loving how things have gone these last couple of games, and I just want to keep it going.”
He attributed his recent tear to his ability to finally start adjusting to the differences of the college game from high school.
“The biggest adjustment is just knowing that you’re on the court with a lot of good guys that’s got the same game as you,” he said. “They can shoot, they can drive, they can find the open guys. But really, it’s just the pace of the game, knowing everything and being in the right spots on the court. But other than that, that’s it.”
Hagans has played, and now talks, as if he has no regrets about where his collegiate career has taken him so far — and there have been many twists and turns in the journey.
It started with his commitment to UGA back in December 2017, right before Christmas, and just as the temperature on then-coach Mark Fox’s hot seat started turning up. The warmer it got, the colder Hagans’ commit to Georgia seemed. And sure enough, in February not long after Fox’s dismissal, Hagans decommitted.
Current Georgia coach, Tom Crean made his pitch, Hagans said. And Hagans had some history with Crean from the AAU circuit.
Hagans said Crean made many visits to Newton High once he was hired as Fox’s successor, and while Hagans showed the new coach respect, his decision came down to one thing.
“I was up here every time my cousin played, because my cousin used to play for (Fox),” Hagans said. “So when Fox left, it was like a loyalty thing for me. It was loyalty over everything, so that’s why I (decommitted).”
When asked after Tuesday’s game if Hagans would’ve still considered Kentucky had Fox not been fired, Hagans answered it about as matter-of-factly as possible.
“If coach Fox would’ve stayed, I would’ve been here,” he said.
Nevertheless, Hagans says all the recruiting stuff is water under the bridge now. He said he’s happy where he is and has built a brotherhood bond with his current teammates. He also said he has respect for the Georgia team he would’ve been a part of.
“They’ve got some really good guys on that team,” he said. “They played us hard at first and we were in a dogfight. They’ll be fine.”
So there’s no need for Hagans to look back on his days in Georgia — except when it comes to his high school alma mater.
“I talk to Tyrease (Brown), Armani (Harris) and Tre (Clark) too — and congrats to Tre for committing to VCU,” Hagans said. “I was joking with them, you know, telling them they’re gonna be trash. So after they’ve gotten off to a good start, they call me saying, ‘Oh, I thought we were gonna be trash this year.’ But they’re still having a good season, and I’m watching them and I hope they continue to do well.”
Newton gave coach Rick Rasmussen his 300th win last Saturday in a win against Eastside. The Rams are currently sitting in second place in Region 8-AAAAAAA and poised for another deep state tournament run.
But if Hagans wouldn’t have reclassified to graduate a year early, does he believe he would’ve led Newton to a state crown?
He heard the question, paused, laughed, and then said what anyone who knows him would’ve expected.