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CATS GOT GAME, NOW GET GATORS

Date story published: Sunday, March 14, 2004

ATLANTA -- An interesting thing happened as Gerald Fitch put an exclamation point on Kentucky's 78-63 victory over South Carolina yesterday. He punctuated UK's advancement to today's Southeastern Conference Tournament finals by dunking ... left-handed.

Necessity rather than style dictated Fitch's choice. Another hit on his injured right hand earlier in the game left it aching.

"A little bit, man," Fitch said in the winning locker room as he padded the ice pack on his right hand.

Adaptation, one of UK's well-chronicled strengths, loomed large in the victory over South Carolina. Coming off Friday's emotional restoration of pride against Georgia, Kentucky saw South Carolina as nothing more than a basketball opponent. And since the Cats won at Columbia by 19 points 10 days earlier, Carolina was not an especially threatening one.

"I told the team the biggest roar in Atlanta (on Friday) was not Gamecock fans when we won," South Carolina Coach Dave Odom said. "It was Kentucky players in their hotel. 'Yeah!!! They won. We can kick their butt.' "

Kentucky, which seeks the program's 25th championship in 44 SEC Tournaments today, played efficiently, if not with the zeal evident against Georgia.

"We were going through the motions in some parts of the game," said Fitch, who returned to his super sixth man role after starting against Georgia. "Seeing that, it makes you want to come in and change the game."

Fitch did just that by scoring 19 of his game-high 24 points in the second half.

When South Carolina closed to within five, 44-39, barely three minutes into the second half, Fitch contributed nine straight points to an 11-2 run that gave UK a 55-41 lead. And when South Carolina later narrowed a 15-point deficit to single digits down the stretch, he came off an Erik Daniels screen and swished a three-pointer that steered the Cats toward victory.

Fitch credited his big second half to the foul trouble that limited his first half to five minutes.

"Of course," he said. "You don't play in the first half, you want to play in the second half. Five minutes of the first half, it's not a fun feeling."

As always, Fitch downplayed his role coming off the bench. He started against Georgia because UK wanted to start at full strength. He learned only minutes before the South Carolina game that he'd be coming off the bench again, perhaps because Antwain Barbour had played reasonably well (7.5 ppg) against the Gamecocks this season.

"Coach (Tubby Smith) kind of has his tricks to play with the team to make us play better," Fitch said of the role play.

Teammate Chuck Hayes saw significance in Fitch coming off the bench.

"If you have your go-to player coming off the bench making shots, the other team is in trouble," Hayes said. "It's like six starters out there."

Odom likened such adaptability as a reason another Kentucky team has separated itself from the opposition. To make the point, he noted how the Gamecocks floundered for a while, beginning with that blowout loss to Kentucky on March 3, after losing big man Rolando Howell.

"We had to go through an exorcism," said Odom, who credited a trust in Smith's coaching as a key in Kentucky's smooth transition to Fitch as starter or substitute. "Gerald Fitch didn't start. In his own mind, he probably said, (Smith) knows best and it's not going to bother me. And when I do come in, I'll play well. He had to say that. That's what makes them great. Give Tubby the credit and the players credit. They trust each other."

Besides shaking off a sluggish start and Fitch's early foul trouble, Kentucky won despite getting only two points in 19 minutes from Chuck Hayes, the team's rock-like foundation.

Fitch, whose defense on Georgia's Levi Stukes sparked Friday's victory, supplied offensive punch against South Carolina.

"My defensive-minded play helped us (Friday)," he said. "Today, my defensive-minded play got me on the bench" because of foul trouble.

"What I try to do is help the team all the ways I can. That's one of the special qualities I bring to the team."

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