Date story published: Saturday, November 29, 2003
His stroke was broke a week ago. Gerald Fitch (a.k.a. Mr. Fixit) not only solved the problem, he made his shooting touch better than ever last night.
Fitch not only scored a career-high 36 points, he flirted with the most productive scoring night by a Kentucky player in Rupp Arena history.
In leading Kentucky to a 108-81 victory over Tennessee Tech, Fitch came within four points and one basket of Derrick Miller's Rupp records. Miller, more a pure shooter to Fitch's gritty scorer, had 40 points and 15 baskets against Vanderbilt on Feb. 7, 1990.
"I had confidence in myself just like always," Fitch said. "Everything was basic. I didn't feel like Michael Jordan out there. When I get into a groove, I shoot the ball. Tonight I just got in one of those grooves."
Fitch had equaled his previous career high with 25 first-half points. He needed only 32 seconds to equal the two baskets he managed in last week's season opener against Winthrop, when he said his shot was "broke."
Fitch, who also set career highs with 14 baskets and 20 shots (his five three-pointers equaled a career high), saw significance in that the two quick baskets were layups.
"That's something I focused on," he said. "I didn't want to start launching threes. I wanted to go to the basket and get myself going."
Of Fitch's 10 first-half baskets, seven were layups, including the first four.
Tennessee Tech's preference to play up-tempo contributed to the layup opportunities.
"That's the way we like to play," Fitch said. "I have to give my teammates a lot of credit. If anything, you should ask those guys why I was able to score."
Point guard Cliff Hawkins contributed 11 assists, equaling a career high, as all five starters scored double-digit points.
"When someone's making shots, Cliff's very astute," UK Coach Tubby Smith said. "They've been playing together four years. They were calling plays for Gerald."
Later in the half, Fitch's long-range touch enabled the Cats to establish a perimeter attack. UK's failure to shoot well from outside, a nagging irritation this early in the season, showed itself for a second straight game. Kentucky made nothing but layups in the game's first five minutes and had only one basket other than a layup in the first 12 minutes. Fitch broke the spell with a three-pointer from the right side off the fast break at the eight-minute mark.
That shot, which came after the Cats missed nine of their first 10 three-point attempts, prompted a Tech timeout with UK ahead 27-16. If the timeout was supposed to prevent Fitch's shot from beginning a barrage, it didn't work. Fitch's trey began UK's streak of 4-for-8 shooting from beyond the arc in the half's final eight minutes.
"Tubby didn't tell you, but I was Gerald Fitch's shooting coach," quipped Tennessee Tech Coach Mike Sutton, a UK assistant in Smith's first five seasons here. "I have to take the credit and the blame for that."
More seriously, Sutton added, "We left him open a few more times than we wanted."
Fitch matched his previous career high (25 points at North Carolina last season and against IUPUI in the 2003 NCAA Tournament) with 31 seconds left in the first half. He did it with another fast-break layup. Fouled on the play, his ensuing free throw matched the high.
"He pretty much carried us in the first half," teammate Chuck Hayes said of Fitch. "His shot hasn't really been falling in practice. Today in the shootaround, he took a few more shots."
Fitch, who scored UK's first basket of the second half (a jumper from the top of the key) to establish a new career high, dismissed the importance of his shooting in practice. "That doesn't matter," he said. "I don't care about practice."
Fitch -- who else? -- shot Kentucky past the century mark. His three-pointer with four minutes left gave UK its first 100-point scoring game since the 106-44 obliteration of Vanderbilt here last March 5. It was also UK's third-highest scoring game in Smith's seven seasons as coach.
"His shot is no longer broken," Smith declared. "The first game, he may have taken some questionable shots. Shot selection, I think he improved in that area."
If needed, Fitch said he was ready to assume the lead-scoring role filled by Tayshaun Prince and Keith Bogans the last two seasons.
"I definitely feel that way," he said. "I have a lot of confidence in myself. It's all about what the team needs."