Saturday, March 29, 2003
With Bogans in limbo, UK turns to Fitch
Guard growing up, into a key role for team
By Neil Schmidt
The Cincinnati Enquirer
MINNEAPOLIS - With Keith Bogans either out or seeing only limited action today, Kentucky probably will need someone to step up and take the tough shots Bogans otherwise would. The best candidate might not seem to be a player who needs lights on to sleep and is terrified of air travel. But Gerald Fitch is fearless on the floor.
"Everybody has their phobias," UK assistant coach Reggie Hanson said of Fitch. "Basketball is his comfort zone."
The junior guard last season had a winter of discontent, becoming one of the poster children for Team Turmoil. But his maturation since, both on and off the court, has been critical to UK's stellar season.
Today, he may have to be the floor leader, defend Marquette star guards Dwyane Wade and Travis Diener, and hit perimeter shots to keep the Golden Eagles' defense honest.
"I love those type of challenges, having a lot of weight on my shoulders," Fitch said. "I'm comfortable taking on more of a load."
There can be no heavier load than what Fitch already has shouldered.
He has lived most of his life without his father. George Fitch, an older brother who took on a father's role, was gunned down in 1998.
During a three-week period last season, Fitch appeared bent on destroying his career. He got into a fight with another player on the team plane. He was cited for using a fake ID to enter a Lexington bar. He missed curfew before the Southeastern Conference Tournament.
That added up to three suspensions covering four games. But when UK coach Tubby Smith started cleaning house after the season, Fitch was spared.
"He made some mistakes, as we all do," Smith said. "I don't think people understand some of the issues in his life."
Fitch said Smith became a father figure. They began meeting on a regular basis after last season, and often the conversations had nothing to do with basketball.
"He's been there for me through some tough times," Fitch said. "I feel like I owe him, and I've tried to show my respect by growing up this year."
Fitch has responded with career highs in scoring (12.2 ppg), shooting percentage (46.8 percent), 3-point shooting percentage (42.4) and free throw percentage (76.5).
He had made a 3-pointer in 20 consecutive games before missing his only attempt Thursday against Wisconsin. His scoring helped free Bogans all season, which is the main reason Smith stuck with Fitch as his starting point guard even when incumbent Cliff Hawkins returned in December from academic ineligibility.
"He has the tools to be phenomenal," Smith said. "For him to make the change from point guard to shooting guard shows he's committed. He's a great leader."
Fitch has made some big shots, such as the 3-pointer in Knoxville last season at 0:02 that took Tennessee into overtime, and the 3-pointer to beat Florida on Senior Day last season. He had 25-point outings this season against both North Carolina and IUPUI.
UK took just five 3-point shots Thursday, making one - the lowest number of attempts in at least two seasons - and Fitch had just seven points. He, especially, may need to make up for the potential loss of Bogans' 3-point shooting today to keep Marquette from collapsing into a zone defense.
"We consider him a clutch player," sophomore forward Chuck Hayes said. "He can step up when he wants."
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