Kentucky led by 26 points. Maybe eight minutes remained in the game. It was hardly the setup for a display of relentless effort.
Yet after a teammate missed a shot, Ashton Hagans did not concede the ball to an opponent with impregnable rebound position. And after failing to get the rebound, Hagans did not make a prudent save-it-for-a-more-urgent-time retreat to the defensive end. He tried to intercept the rebounder’s outlet pass, barely failing to succeed as he deflected the ball out of bounds.
This memorable sequence during Kentucky’s final game in the Bahamas raised an obvious question: Why? Why not put yourself in cruise control?
“I try not to,” Hagans said. “You know, I try to play until the whistle blows, until the horn goes off.”
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Hagans credited playing against an older brother, now 23, who was “much bigger” with forging the steel in his approach to basketball.
“Leave everything out there,” he said. “So that’s just really what I wanted to do.”
Hagans acknowledged that apparently not having an off switch on his competitiveness has a downside. While saying that John Calipari has called on teammates to follow Hagans’ example, the UK coach has also scolded the freshman from Cartersville, Ga., for not knowing when to say when.
“He has got on me a couple times when I haven’t turned it off,” Hagans said.
In one practice, neither Hagans nor another freshman, Keldon Johnson, yielded the floor in a trash-talking debate.
“We just kept talking,” Hagans said. “I didn’t turn it off. (Calipari) just chewed me out. I was just, like, ‘OK, let me try to calm it down a little bit.’ It was just something I had to get used to.”
What exactly did Calipari say?
“He was just, like, ‘Don’t make me kick you outta here,’” Hagans recalled. “I was, like, ‘All right. My bad, Coach. Let me calm down. We just got a little too excited.’ He was trying to taunt me, and I was still going. That’s all it was.”
Football used to be an outlet for Hagans’ competitive zeal. Some say football was his best sport. “That’s a fact,” Hagans said.
So why didn’t Hagans, who grew up in football country, stick with the more celebrated sport?
“I didn’t like contact like that,” he said. “So I was just, like, ‘Let me go out here and try to rough somebody up on the court.’ Leave everything on the court. So that’s really what I love to do.”
During the trip to the Bahamas, Calipari applauded how Hagans would “maul” opponents. That sounded like the kind of physical play the contact-averse Hagans said he does not like.
“But it ain’t like tackling,” he said.
Perhaps Hagans’ competitiveness helped UK in recruiting. Of course, he first committed to Georgia, which sold him on helping elevate the home-state program.
Then Georgia fired Mark Fox as coach.
“Cal had hopped on me, and that opened my eyes,” Hagans said. “I was just, like, ‘I can change my family’s life one day.’”
Kentucky sold Hagans on the allure of reaching the NBA. The idea of having to compete against a ballyhooed freshman already signed by UK, Immanuel Quickley, and sophomore Quade Green further activated his competitive nature. He and Quickley had already gone against each other on the AAU level.
“So I was just, like, ‘If he’s already there, let me just go ahead and try to keep competing against him . . . ,’” Hagans said. “Even if I don’t start, I can still bring something to the table. That’s what I’m trying to do now.”
About this series
This is the 12th in a series of 13 stories featuring members of the 2018-19 University of Kentucky men’s basketball team. Watch for all 13 in the coming days in the Herald-Leader and on Kentucky.com.