Saturday, March 15, 2003

Wildcats survive slow start to defeat Vanderbilt in SEC

Smith benches Fitch after guard breaks team rules

By Neil Schmidt
The Cincinnati Enquirer

Kentucky's Keith Bogans (10) is joined by teammates, left to right, Marquis Estill, Gerald Fitch (4), Cliff Hawkins (1), and Erik Daniels, as they watch the final seconds of their 81-63 victory over Vanderbilt.
(AP photo)
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NEW ORLEANS - There are always distractions in the Big Easy. Friday, those tickled even the unflappable Kentucky Wildcats.

Starter Gerald Fitch broke a team rule and didn't start. Coach Tubby Smith yanked his starters at the first TV timeout. UK faced its largest deficit in two months.

Not to mention the temptation of the nation's No. 1 ranking, looming out there to be had.

Yet the second-ranked Wildcats paced themselves and then pasted Vanderbilt, winning 81-63 Friday night in a Southeastern Conference Tournament quarterfinal in the Louisiana Superdome.

"The postseason's a little different," UK sophomore Chuck Hayes said. "You always have these kind of (upsets) going on. You just want to make sure it's not you."

Running their nation-best winning streak to 21 games, UK (27-3) advanced to today's semifinal against Auburn (20-10), which beat Tennessee 66-53 Friday.

The Wildcats routed then-No. 24 Tigers 67-51 Jan. 22 in Rupp Arena forcing 26 turnovers and holding the Tigers to just six second-half field goals.

Friday, UK got a stiffer-than-expected test early from the Commodores (11-18). UK trailed 17-8 eight minutes into the game, the largest deficit it had faced since Jan. 14, when it made its landmark comeback from a 13-point deficit at Vandy.

Yet UK cranked up its defense, holding Vandy to 35 percent shooting, and leading by as many as 27 points in the second half.

Friday's game hadn't figured to be much of a fight, considering UK had outscored the Commodores 152-60 over their previous three halves, holding them to 29.1 percent shooting during that span.

Bogans scores against Vanderbilt during the first half.
(AP photo)
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UK's slow start could have been attributed in part to Fitch's absence. He was benched for an unspecified violation.

"Gerald and I had a little incident, and we had to get that corrected," Smith said. "It's been corrected."

Last season, Fitch was suspended for the SEC Tournament opener against South Carolina, a game UK lost, for breaking curfew the night before.

He was suspended three times last season for a total of four games, yet he had kept his nose clean this winter and had started every game prior to Friday.

Fitch made his first appearance 4 1/2 minutes into the game Friday, along with four others off the bench.

Smith appeared angered by the Wildcats' effort to that point, and he sat the starters for four minutes.

The starters made 15 of their next 24 shots upon return while Vandy made just four of its next 26.

From a 26-22 deficit with five minutes left in the first half, UK went on a 24-4 run over the next 10 minutes of play. The Wildcats shot 53.4 percent overall.

"Once we took their best shot, we responded well," UK junior guard Cliff Hawkins said.

Keith Bogans led four double-figure UK scorers with 16 points. Reserve Jules Camara added 13 points on 6-of-8 shooting.

Fitch didn't score until 12:27 remained in the game, finishing with seven points.

The concern is that Fitch may relapse into his troublesome persona of last season. He insists there's no comparison.

"This was just a small issue, nothing like I had in the past," he said. "... This was just the coach's decision."

With No. 1 Arizona having lost Thursday, UK is seemingly within reach of the No. 1 ranking.

The last time UK held that post was seven years ago.

How can UK be beaten? Vandy coach Kevin Stallings thinks he knows.

"You have to have one of two things: a great post player that commands a double team, or have guys that can break them down off the dribble. No one in the league has that."

UK's winning streak is now tied for the seventh-longest in school history.

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