Sunday, February 22, 2004
Despite injured hand, Fitch sparks UK to win
Regains offensive leader role while nursing injury
By John Zenor
The Associated Press
AUBURN, Ala. - Gerald Fitch's sore shooting hand bothered him the entire game, but not nearly as much as it pained Auburn.
Fitch scored 18 points and looked like No. 9 Kentucky's offensive star again in Saturday's 68-59 victory over the Tigers, making winning a little more stress-free for the Wildcats.
Auburn's Brandon Robinson, center, loses the ball as he is guarded by Kentucky's Ravi Moss, left, and Chuck Hayes.
"My hand was hurting the entire game," said Fitch, making his way back after missing three games with a sprained ligament in his right hand. "The pain was there, but I knew that I had to get in the game and make some plays."
The Wildcats (19-4, 9-3 Southeastern Conference) were much better for it after losing to Georgia and beating South Carolina by one point in Fitch's absence. They've beaten Arkansas and Auburn by a more comfortable 26 points combined since Fitch's return.
Kentucky has won 19 of the past 20 meetings with the Tigers (13-10, 4-8), whose NCAA tournament hopes took a potentially fatal blow with the loss.
"You can see why they're Top Ten," Auburn coach Cliff Ellis said. "They overpowered us. It was a bang-up game, and they got just a few more rebounds, a few more shots around the paint.
"We had a shot. I'm disappointed we didn't get it, but I see how Kentucky wins. They're very good."
Cliff Hawkins spent much of the second half on the bench with foul trouble, but ignited Kentucky with eight of his 10 points over the final 5:14 during a 19-10 run after Auburn had tied the game.
More importantly for the Wildcats' fortunes, Fitch regained his shooting touch. He played 22 minutes against Arkansas, but had only eight points. Against the Tigers, he went 3-of-5 from 3-point range and 7-of-8 from the free throw line in 28 minutes.
Kelenna Azubuike had eight points and eight rebounds for the Wildcats, who avoided adding to their list of tight wins with a strong finish - not that coach Tubby Smith cared.
"I want to win," Smith said. "That's all I think about. I don't think about how much, I don't care how much."
Ian Young led Auburn with 13 points, but had only two in the second half. Brandon Robinson, another reserve, and Quinnel Brown each had 10 points.
Leading scorer Marco Killingsworth took just three shots, collecting eight points and eight rebounds but committing six turnovers. Kentucky seldom let him get the ball in the paint after his uncontested dunk to open the scoring.
"We tried to trap him, double him every time the ball went in there, and get him every time before he had a chance to put the ball on the floor," Smith said. "I think our guys learned a lesson and corrected that mistake."
The Tigers shot just 34 percent, including 6-of-23 from 3-point range, in a game where both teams were hamstrung by foul trouble.
Auburn missed 11 consecutive field goal attempts - and two free throws - in a 6-minute scoreless stretch of the second half but still trailed only 46-40.
The Tigers tied it at 49-all on Brown's 3-pointer with 6:46 left, but made only two field goals after that - missing four on one possession.
Fitch left the game clutching his injured hand early in the second half, but returned to hit a jump shot and a 3-pointer in the final 2:25.
"I don't think he did any more damage to it, but there was some swelling," Smith said. "He showed a gutsy effort to do that."
Fitch's return to form helped offset a slow start for the Wildcats, who missed all seven field goals in the first 7:40. He came off the bench with 18:39 left after Antwain Barbour picked up two quick fouls, and hit consecutive 3-pointers to tie the game late in the half.
Young made his third - and last - 3-pointer with 1 second left to give Auburn a 34-33 halftime lead. The Tigers led by as many as eight points midway through, but the teams had a combined nine players with two fouls by halftime.
The Wildcats were able to score 30 points in the paint, aided by the foul trouble of Auburn center Kyle Davis. The league's top shotblocker played only 3 minutes in the first half and 16 total.
"I thought that was key," Smith said. "We were trying to get them in foul trouble early. He's such a great shotblocker, such a great presence defensively, that if you can get him out of the game that will happen."
Team rebounds - 5.
Team rebounds - 1.
3-pointers - UK 4-13 (Daniels 0-1, Azubuike 1-2, Hawkins 0-3, Fitch 3-5, Carrier 0-1, Perry 0-1), A 6-23 (Brown 2-4, Monroe 1-2, Watson 0-5, Young 3-9, Robinson 0-3). Technicals - None. Officials - N/A. Attendance - 10,500.
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