For a fan base that might not carry much craze about its basketball team, Georgia supporters gave Ashton Hagans a treatment similar to that of a star football player who is despised between the Sanford Stadium hedges.
This jeer fest was around the Kentucky freshman who was previously slated to play Tuesday night’s game at Stegeman Coliseum in the red-and-black. Instead, he was there for the powerhouse program that stampeded the Bulldogs 69-49. Hagans heard a chorus of boos in pregame introductions and each time he got a touch. When the 6-foot-3 guard stepped to the free-throw line, a repeated echo of “traitor” rung throughout a sellout crowd.
“It rattled him early and inspired him later,” Kentucky head coach John Calipari said. “I had to get him out because he missed a couple layups and was rushing a little bit. He settled in and played the way he needs to play for him and us.”
After Hagans sat on the bench (it wasn’t for long as he recorded 35 minutes of play), Calipari told his point guard to let him know when he was ready to return. Hagans needed a brief second to breathe and get comfortable, then he re-entered and became a force.
Hagans came out of the halftime locker room blowing kisses to fans and went on a spurt with seven straight points to open the second period.
Hagans finished with a season-high 23 points, five rebounds and four assists and was a menace on a court he dreamed of suiting up on — with the Bulldogs. Hagans was a former Mark Fox commit and would’ve been Georgia’s most-heralded addition since Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, who has since gone on to have a successful NBA career.
“He just brought his game and Cal wanted him to play the way he was used to playing,” Kentucky sophomore forward Nick Richards said. “I would say he was a little more aggressive on the defensive end and tried to get more steals.”
Side note on the steals: Hagans recorded three, according to the official stat sheet. A Georgia spokesperson, however, indicated that the in-state native recorded a fourth steal. It was originally credited to Tyler Herro, but apparently Hagans’ stealing prowess continued well after the final buzzer.
Hagans said he was “trying to play his game,” but this became an extraordinarily-unique experience.
“He was ready to come home and play in front all his family and friends,” Chris Williams, Hagans’ former AAU coach, said in a message to The Telegraph. “He took this game as just another but also a special game because the meaning of it.”
Hagans was a long-time Georgia commit and had a strong rapport with Fox and his lead assistant Jonas Hayes (who left after Crean was hired and holds the same position at Xavier). Hagans discussed his hope to bring the Bulldogs back to relevancy, but then the turnover occurred and the decision to de-commit and play for the Wildcats was essentially made by the administration.
“If coach Fox was here, I would’ve stayed,” Hagans said. “... I feel like I could’ve helped them a lot, but they’ve got a good group of guys.”
In turn, Georgia’s new coach Tom Crean didn’t have frustration toward a former Bulldog commit having a career-best game on their home floor. Hagans wasn’t Crean’s recruit, although he briefly tried. After Crean took the job in March 2018, Hagans’ status was immediately in limbo and Crean took trips to Newton — so did Hayes when he was on the staff.
Essentially, there was no bargaining to be done after Fox had left and Crean was called.
“It wasn’t close to me,” Crean said. “We made one visit and he never came to Georgia. It would’ve been different if we had recruited him for years. He’s an outstanding freshman.”
As Georgia took a drubbing for its seventh loss of the season, there was a hint of positivity to Crean’s demeanor. He knows what could be in store for the Bulldogs, or at least he did a sufficient job of portraying his hopes. It was visible in Georgia’s first true sellout of the Crean era which began with droves of students lining up for admission wristbands by noon.
Crean’s aspiration is to sign a prospect of five-star caliber in the early stages of his tenure. He can also sell an environment or the development of certain players. The most notable is Nicolas Claxton, and Crean showed his film to a recruit on an official visit.
Georgia is in serious contention yet again to add one of the nation’s best, and Crean calls the shots in this recruiting effort. Anthony Edwards, a five-star guard out of Holy Spirit Prep in Atlanta, has Georgia competing with Kansas, Kentucky and other powerhouses for his services. The Bulldogs, his first official visit, could have a legitimate shot. Crean may or may not be hinting at that, but he gained a serious demeanor in response to recruiting.
“We’ll get our breakthrough and find our Georgia guy,” Crean said. “We’ll find some guys in the state who dip their toe in the water and say ‘I can do great things here.’ We’ll get this thing built to where they know they don’t have to go anywhere else to do it.”
For the guy who Georgia didn’t have, it was the most-ideal return for Hagans. His first appearance was greeted by a deafening amount of taunting. One of his last, at the free-throw line, was hushed and the only sound was Georgia fans walking up the stairs … toward the exits.
“I felt like I wasn’t a traitor, but the fans felt that way,” Hagans said. “I just tried to go out, play my game and put out the talk.”