Sunday, March 14, 2004

UK able to make all the right moves

Fitch accepts being sent to bench role by Smith, nets 24 points in 19 minutes

By Neil Schmidt
The Cincinnati Enquirer

ATLANTA - Tubby Smith and Gerald Fitch stayed behind a moment as Kentucky broke from its locker room for Saturday's game. The coach had pulled Fitch from the starting lineup, and he readied an explanation for his senior guard.

No need, Coach.

"He knows it doesn't bother me," Fitch said later.

Gerald Fitch had 24 points Saturday.
(AP photo)
Case in point were the 24 points Fitch would score in just 19 minutes Saturday, leading the eighth-ranked Wildcats past South Carolina 78-63 in a Southeastern Conference Tournament semifinal at the Georgia Dome.

Sparking UK with his hot shooting, Fitch made Smith's move appear a master stroke, and it propelled the Wildcats (25-4) into today's 1 p.m. championship game against Florida (20-9).

Gamecocks coach Dave Odom singled out the ploy as a critical difference Saturday.

"Fitch comes in without any kind of ego and scored 24 points," Odom said. "That speaks volumes about the quality of that team."

Also, about Smith's people skills.

"Starting lineups for most teams are delicate," Odom said. "When you can do what he did today with no apparent dip, that's tremendous. You don't get to that without knowing your team and them trusting you."

An unsung element of another super season is Smith's ability to push buttons. He enlisted Erik Daniels to bulk up and play center, massaged Antwain Barbour's fragile ego, goaded Kelenna Azubuike into aggression, and patiently brought along a young bench.

Late in the season, when Fitch returned after missing three games with a sprained finger, Smith found fortune by using his leading scorer as a reserve.

Then Smith flip-flopped by starting Fitch two straight games before inserting Barbour in his place Saturday. He told Fitch he thought the 6-foot-5 Barbour matched up better with South Carolina guards Josh Gonner and Mike Boynton.

"The coach has to decide what makes the team play better, and actually, it worked," Fitch said. "It didn't make no difference to me. It's kind of surprising, but it's nothing bad."

Fitch played just five minutes of the first half Saturday, drawing two quick fouls. Odom said the fact Fitch was fresh helped him total 19 second-half points in 14 minutes.

He made some dazzling plays, including stealing an inbounds pass and converting a 3-point play while Renaldo Balkman rode him all the way upcourt. With 3:05 left and the Wildcats leading by eight points, Fitch nailed a 3-pointer with just three seconds on the shot clock.

Smith didn't address whether Fitch would return to the starting lineup but noted the advantages of Fitch as a reserve.

"When he comes in the game like that, he gives us a lift," Smith said. "And he gives us a real steady ballhandler (off the bench)."

UK handled the ball well Saturday against a team that leads the league in field-goal percentage defense and steals, totaling 19 assists with just eight turnovers and forcing the Gamecocks (23-10) into 14 turnovers. It fed Daniels inside repeatedly for his 21 points.

Now on a season-long eight-game winning streak, UK will try today to claim its 25th SEC tourney title and seemingly cement a No. 1 NCAA Tournament seed.



Team rebounds - 2.

Team rebounds - 3.

South Carolina3429-63
3-pointers - SC 7-20 (Powell 1-3, Brown 0-1, Kinsey 0-1, Boynton 3-7, Gonner 3-6, Wallace 0-2), UK 8-23 (Daniels 1-1, Azubuike 1-2, Hawkins 1-6, Barbour 1-3, Fitch 4-8, Carrier 0-2, Perry 0-1). Technicals - None. Officials - Lopes, Eades, Valentine. Attendance - N/A.

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