This is the story of two guards from the Peachtree State, both of whom dreamed of becoming Georgia Bulldogs. Both committed to UGA, but after the coach who recruited him got fired, the older of the two changed his mind. He signed with Kentucky.
A year later the other did, indeed, become a Bulldog and for the second time this basketball season, they squared off. And for the second time, the guy wearing the Kentucky uniform celebrated when it was over.
Ashton Hagans, to be sure, had more help. He had Nick Richards on his side, the 7-footer who went for 20 points and eight rebounds. Another UK big, E.J. Montgomery, looked as though he was on his way to a big night before foul problems slowed him down, but he still put up 10 points, six rebounds and two blocks in 19 minutes.
True freshman Keion Brooks, Jr., came off the bench like a bolt of energy and helped stow the game away down the stretch in the second half.
And then there was Immanuel Quickley.
He made life difficult for the aforementioned guard, the one wearing the Georgia uniform. He was Anthony Edwards. Lots of NBA scouts made their way to Lexington, where they could get an eyeful of the talent wearing blue and white but also re-evaluate Edwards, who some say could be the number one pick in this year’s draft.
He had Quickley in his lap all night.
“He held him to what at halftime? Zero?” Hagans asked. He was correct. Zero points and the same number of rebounds. “Quick is getting better, day-by-day. He’s a hard worker and a competitor.”
As is Hagans, who knocked down the first shot of the game and cruised past the Georgia bench. Videographers on the baseline heard him say, “Not tonight!”
Hagans stuffed the stat sheet with 23 points, nine assists, five rebounds and two steals, to the delight (no doubt) of the 12-14 family members on hand in Rupp Arena, and dozens more likely tuned in back home.
“It’s always good to go against my home-state team,” he said. “To have my family here to see me, watch me play, go up against some of my homeboys from back at the crib. It was just a good one.
“(I was) trying to put on a show because I know everyone is watching,” Hagans said. “I didn’t want to force too many, just go out and play my game.”
He did force at least one play, drawing the wrath of his head coach.
“Ashton shot a shot early in the shot clock with five minutes to go and then we started breaking down,” John Calipari said. By then, Kentucky had eased back to a double-digit lead despite Edwards’ best effort.
Quickley did the best he could, eventually fouling out as Edwards took on more of the scoring load and pumped in 16 in the second half. His goose-egg in the first period didn’t bother Bulldogs coach Tom Crean, because with Edwards isolated in the corner with a faceful of Quickley, it opened up spaces and opportunities for the other Bulldogs.
“Because they were face guarding, we were able to get some baskets at other places,” he said. “Anthony is the kind of player that will understand that because he is such a good teammate. They were trying to take him away. Well, OK, let’s go create something for somebody else.”
That’s one of the reasons it was a six-point game at the half. And in the second, the Dogs shaved Kentucky’s lead to three on a few occasions. With the lead only seven, midway through the second half, Hagans took the ball away from Rayshaun Hammonds and fed Quickley for a fast-break bucket.
The lead would grow to 15 before shrinking to seven again. But Hagans helped keep things in check, the way a superior point guard does. In fact, he’s developed a fan in Memphis Grizzlies guard Ja Morant, the former Murray State phenom who not long ago tweeted his admiration of Hagans’ game.
“I always try to get some advice from him,” Hagans said. “He inspires me to go harder. It’s a good thing to have him on my side.”
For the Wildcats, it was a good thing to have Hagans on their side, against the team from his home state. With so many family members courtside, he wasn’t going to let this one get away.