Thursday, March 15, 2001
Freshman ignited Kentucky's resurgence
By Rusty Hampton
UNIONDALE, N.Y. It might be a cliche, but it's not a lie when his teammates and coaches say Gerald Fitch plays with the determination of a man on a mission.
Nearly everything the University of Kentucky freshman does on the basketball court is aimed at honoring his late brother, George Fitch, who was gunned down on a Macon, Ga., street in the summer of 1998 at the age of 24.
When he's not playing basketball, Fitch proudly wears his brother's Army-issued dog tags around his neck.
I try to be what my brother would want me to be, Fitch said Wednesday before the 'Cats practiced at Nassau Coliseum. I know that he wouldn't want me moping around and he'd want me to proceed with pursuing my goals in life.
Fitch was raised by his mother, Ruby. He has two older sisters, Valencia, 30, and April, 25.
I never really had my dad around, Fitch said. (George) was my brother and my dad. He taught me everything I know. He was always there for me when I had to talk to him about something. It was just tremendous how he was there for me.
And then one day he was gone.
Adrian Green, who coached Fitch at Macon's Westside High School, said his star player became a different person after his brother's death.
There was a whole change in Gerald, Green said last month. He knew he had the potential to be a good player. I think what happened to his brother showed him how short life can be and that you've got to make the most of it.
Said Fitch: I used to play just to have fun. But now it's a more serious matter.
Perhaps that explains how a 6-foot-3 freshman guard can come off the bench and grab a game-high nine rebounds at No.2-ranked Michigan State. Or rip the ball away from a 6-10, 270-pounder like Tennessee's Charles Hathaway as he did in a February victory over the-then fourth-ranked Volunteers. Or knock down a late 3-pointer to forge a tie against then-eighth-ranked Florida in a game Kentucky would win 71-70.
A big-time play, said Kentucky coach Tubby Smith of Fitch's shot in the final minute.
Fitch averages 6.9 points and 4.5 rebounds a game. Those are far from overwhelming numbers, but he has been hot lately. He hit two 3-pointers and knocked down seven of eight free throws on his way to a career-high 17 points in last Saturday's Southeastern Conference Tournament win over Arkansas.
After opening the season with a 3-5 record, Kentucky has won 19 of its past 23 games. The Cats have gone from unranked to ninth in The Associated Press Top 25. They tied for the regular-season conference championship, then swept through the SEC Tournament with three victories last weekend in Nashville, propelling them to a No.2 seed in the East Region.
The resurgence has coincided with Fitch's insertion into the starting lineup.
Marvin Stone started the first eight games at power forward but struggled academically and on the court, leading Smith to change the lineup for the Dec.22 contest against Indiana at Freedom Hall.
Fitch, fresh off his nine-rebound performance at Michigan State, started against the Hoosiers and provided instant energy and enthusiasm. He scored 10 points, grabbed six rebounds and has started every game since.
Fitch was named Georgia's Class 4-A Player of the Year last season after leading Westside to a 28-5 record and a spot in the State Tournament semifinals. He averaged 26.4 points, 6.8 rebounds, 3.4 assists and 4.4 steals per game. He nearly signed with Florida State in the early period, but Seminoles coach Steve Robinson decided he wanted to see how Fitch did during his senior season.
Robinson's hesitancy turned into Kentucky's good fortune. Tipped off about Fitch by a player whom he had coached at Georgia, Smith got in late on Fitch in the recruiting process after former Kentucky guard Desmond Allison ran afoul of the school's stringent alcohol policy, jeopardizing his career. Allison's uncertain status led Smith to offer Fitch a scholarship, although many of recruiting analysts did not rank him highly and most considered him a three-point shooter without a well-rounded game.
It didn't take Fitch long to prove there was much more to his game than a jump shot. The fact that he was able to blossom as a role player helped immensely, he said.
I had a lot of roles in high school, Fitch said. ... I had to do everything to make my team win. ... On this team I don't have that kind of pressure on me.
And when the weight of a situation begins to bear heavily, Fitch imagines that his late brother is watching over him, still guiding and protecting him.
He particularly remembers the final minutes of Kentucky's Valentine's Day game at Tennessee, when the Cats nearly blew a large lead before winning, 103-95. With the lead dwindling and the crowd howling, Fitch was fouled. He took several deep breaths and then made two big shots.
I told myself my brother was the only one who could see me right now, Fitch said. And I didn't even hear the crowd no more. It's things like that that keep me comfortable in pressure situations.
Online pool and college hoops coverage at Cincinnati.com
UK vs. HOLY CROSS
What: NCAA Tournament East Regional, first round.
When: 12:20 p.m. today.
Where: Nassau Coliseum (16,115), Uniondale, N.Y.
Records: UK 22-9, Holy Cross 22-7.
Radio: WSAI-AM (1530).
Coach: Tubby Smith (fourth season, 108-32; 232-94 overall)
Coach: Ralph Willard (second season, 32-25; 176-149 overall)
BY THE NUMBERS
37.3: Holy Cross' defensive field goal percentage, which leads the nation.
10-18: The Crusaders' record last season.
1989-90: Season Willard served as UK's associate head coach.
UC: Crash boards or crash
DAUGHERTY: Two reasons for guarded optimism
BYU coach has come long way to NCAAs
UC game will air from tipoff
UC women eliminated on wild shot
Xavier women reach for the stars
Prosser reunites with old friend
Prep ineligibility won't affect Sato
Dillon limbo slows Bengals' moves
Bengals would juggle defense for Kirkland
Reitsma gets chance to show his stuff
Young close, Larkin not
Game report: Royals 4, Reds 2