GAINESVILLE, Fla. (AP) — Kentucky point guard Ashton Hagans apparently needed some time away. Coach John Calipari obliged.
But Calipari expects his floor leader to return in time for next week’s Southeastern Conference Tournament in Nashville, Tennessee. The Wildcats (25-6, 15-3 SEC) are the No. 1 seed and open play Friday following a double bye.
”Hopefully, what you’ll see is an inspired young man,” Calipari said following a 71-70 victory at Florida on Saturday. ”And if he doesn’t think he’s ready for that, then he’s not ready. We’re going to go without whoever we have.”
Hagans and Calipari could be seen arguing on the bench during Kentucky’s 81-73 home loss to Tennessee on Tuesday night. Hagans reportedly refused to enter with about 14 minutes left in the game.
The sophomore is averaging 11.5 points and leads the team in assists and steals. A solid defender, he’s been hampered by thigh and shoulder injuries this season.
The Wildcats had a 17-point lead early in the second half before the Volunteers outscored them 29-9 over 10:09 to lead 63-60.
Hagans and forward Nick Richards had several exchanges throughout the Tennessee game. Asked afterward, Calipari said it was likely due to both players making mistakes.
Calipari tried to downplay any controversy Friday.
”Heat of the moment, some of that stuff,” Calipari said. ”When you coach young kids, this is what pops out sometimes. And you won’t believe this, I get emotional, so I don’t mind when other people get emotional. I get it. …
”We’ve got a young team that’s growing and learning and learn from every situation.”
Without Hagans in Gainesville, the Wildcats almost lost consecutive games for the first time in nearly three months. Richards and fellow forwards EJ Montgomery and Keion Brooks Jr. bailed them out.
Brooks hit a floater in the lane with 59 second remaining to cut the lead to 70-69. Florida answered with a shot-clock violation on the other end.
Brooks missed a driving baseline layup, and Montgomery’s tip-in was initially waived off as a cylinder violation. Officials reviewed it and gave Montgomery the basket with 11.8 seconds left for a 71-70 Wildcats’ lead, their first of the game. Florida’s Andrew Nembhard missed a 25-footer at the buzzer, a shot that bounced twice off the rim before falling to the floor and setting off Kentucky’s raucous celebration.
”We missed him out there,” fellow guard Johnny Juzang said. ”We know he was cheering us one and supporting us. We missed him out there, but we’ve got to come out and still compete and get the W.”
Calipari offered few details about Hagans’ absence other than saying it was ”just personal.”
”Here’s what I’ll tell you about these kids: In the last three years, this has totally changed,” Calipari said. ”What is on these players. … The clutter that they got to deal with, the lists, what’s out there, not being able to stay in the moment, the anxiety of worrying a year from now, everyone around them.
”And then you’re at Kentucky, where every game is someone’s Super Bowl, every game is sold out and now all of a sudden you start struggling four of five games and now you don’t know how to deal with stuff.”
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