Saturday, January 05, 2002

Fitch making his mark for UK

Sophomore only 6-3 but crashes boards

The Associated Press

        LEXINGTON — At first glance, Kentucky's Gerald Fitch doesn't strike fear into the hearts of opposing big men. At least not until they see the 6-foot-3 sophomore guard sky over them for rebounds or snatch the ball from their unsuspecting hands as they prepare to go up for what appears to be an easy basket in the paint.

        Fitch may not score like All-American Tayshaun Prince or hand out assists like crafty point guard Cliff Hawkins, but he is arguably the most important cog in the sixth-ranked Wildcats' basketball machine.

        “He plays great defense, and he's relentless on the boards,” Kentucky coach Tubby Smith said. “Even when he's not shooting the ball well, he does all the little things a team has to have to be successful. No matter what happens in a game, you never doubt he's giving his best effort.

        “That's what he's willing to do. That's a role that Gerald understands. He knows that if he continues to do that, he'll continue to get minutes.”

        Fitch, who had a season-high 16 points and 10 rebounds in the Wildcats' 101-67 victory Wednesday over Tulane, is third on the team in rebounding with 5.5 a game and tied with Hawkins for first in steals, with 13 in 11 games.

        It's more common than not to see Fitch bouncing up and down in the lane as if riding a pogo stick, tipping a ball away from an opposing team's center to a spot where he can grab it and start a fast break.

        He thinks nothing of diving head first into scores of photographers and heavy camera equipment beyond the baseline in an attempt to get a loose ball into the hands of a teammate.

        “They don't need me to score that much on this team,” said the soft-spoken Fitch, who is averaging 7.9 points entering today's Southeastern Conference opener at Mississippi State (13-1). “I'm doing the things I need to do to help the team win. If I score, I score. If I don't, I'm still going to play hard.”

        Smith, who relishes tough defense above all else, said Fitch is rare for an underclassman because he understands the effort it takes to play great defense and is willing to sacrifice offensive numbers to do that.

        “He's always had that desire in him,” Smith said. “He came to me last season and said, "Coach, what can I do to contribute more to the team?' I told him he if he played good defense, he'd play, and he's been doing it ever since.

        “He's aggressive on the ball and never lets up. He makes mis takes like everybody else, like getting out of position — a lot. But he makes up for that with his effort and energy.”

        It's not uncommon to see Fitch battling players 6 to 8 inches taller for rebounds. In most instances — somehow — it's Fitch that comes down with the ball.

        “He does things inside that no 6-3 guy should be able to do,” junior Keith Bogans said. “He's got a lot of energy and plays his butt off. And when the ball goes up on the glass, he thinks he should get it.

        “He doesn't think like a guard. It doesn't surprise him that he can go up and take a rebound away from a big guy. He expects to do it.”

        It's determination that led Michigan State coach Tom Izzo to declare after a game last season he'd rarely seen a young player approach the game with so much heart.

        “The best rebounder was one of the smallest guys in the game, and that's the product of effort,” Izzo said after Fitch grabbed a game-high nine rebounds against the Spartans. “It's not skill. It's not athletic ability. It's not conditioning. It's effort. That's all it is. He really goes after it.”

        Although defense and hustle have become his trademark, Fitch was recruited for his jump shot.

        He averaged 26.4 points, 6.8 rebounds, 4.4 steals and 3.4 assists his senior year to lead Westwood High in Macon, Ga., to a 28-5 record and into the state tournament semifinals.

        Until the Tulane game, however, Fitch had been mired in the first shooting slump of his young career. He was just 6-of-19 in Kentucky's previous three outings.


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