Date story published: Sunday, February 22, 2004
AUBURN, Ala. -- Rather than a formality, the post-game handshake line was a potential minefield for Kentucky guard Gerald Fitch here yesterday. So he protectively held his injured right finger behind his back as he slapped palms and shook hands as a makeshift lefty.
Like a winning politician on election night, Fitch pressed a lot of flesh, albeit carefully. His game-high 18 points, which included a bunch of timely jumpers, led Kentucky to a 68-59 victory over Auburn and no doubt thrilled the 15 family members and friends who traveled from Macon, Ga., to attend the game.
Fitch's performance also personified Kentucky's season of overcoming obstacles. This time the Cats overcame the loss of point guard Cliff Hawkins (foul trouble) and Fitch (an unsettling fall on the injured hand) for a potentially ruinous stretch of the second half.
Fitch left the game with 16:59 left after Auburn's Brandon Robinson put him on the floor in a rebound scrum. Fitch got up slowly and cradled his hand as he walked to the bench.
"I just fell on my knuckle," Fitch said of the injury. It seemed UK's chance to win this nip-and-tuck game departed, too. But, like John Kerry in Iowa, Fitch staged a revival. He hit two clutch jumpers down the stretch to seal the victory, which moved UK to within a game of Mississippi State in the Southeastern Conference regular-season race.
"The extreme pain doesn't stay," Fitch said of his return. "When I got back in the game, I felt it, but it wasn't that extreme pain."
When Auburn closed within 57-53 in the final three minutes, Fitch hit a shake-and-bake jumper over Quinnel Brown.
Then with the lead at 61-55, Auburn left Fitch unguarded and he swished a clinching three-pointer. "I don't know what the defense was thinking about," point guard Cliff Hawkins said of an unchallenged Fitch shot. "You can't leave a guy who shoots that well open."
Fitch downplayed his latest clutch shooting with a familiar comment. "Like I always say, man, just trying to help my team win," he said.
But Fitch, who played tentatively earlier in the week after sitting out three games because of the injured hand, acknowledged he crossed a mental barrier.
"Just playing with pain," Fitch said. "This was kind of like my first full game back. Being able to play a complete game with pain, that was big, especially the way my mind-set had been with my hand."
UK Coach Tubby Smith noted the concern he felt after Fitch fell to the floor. That made Fitch's return all the sweeter.
"He probably has crossed a threshold," said Smith, who defined this crossing of a mental Rubicon as "If I want to be part of it, I have to suck it up and play."
Kentucky, which improved to 19-4 overall and 9-3 in the SEC, stayed ahead of South Carolina in the Eastern Division race and within striking distance of Mississippi State (10-2 in league play after losing to Alabama yesterday) in the league's overall regular-season race.
Auburn, which saw the season's final two weeks as its last best chance to impress the NCAA Tournament Selection Committee, fell to 13-10 overall and 4-8 in the SEC.
Auburn led most of the first half. Then Fitch rallied Kentucky. Despite the injured hand, his repeated drives got seven free throws (which tied a career high) in eight attempts the first half.
Then with Kentucky struggling again to make perimeter shots, Fitch hit back-to-back three-pointers late in the half. The shots, which came with barely three minutes left, were UK's first baskets from outside the paint.
Fitch started the second half, which point guard Hawkins found encouraging. "I knew I had a go-to guy on the perimeter I could call plays for," Hawkins said.
Defense and an advantage inside nudged Kentucky ahead early in the second half. The Cats led by as much as six before an Auburn rally set the stage for Fitch, whose recent absences weighed heavily on Auburn Coach Cliff Ellis' mind.
"We didn't have that bone thrown our way today," Ellis said. "Had he not been there, it might have been different."
Instead, Fitch was there to make the decisive shots.
"That was pretty much the game in a nutshell," teammate Ravi Moss said. "When Gerald hit those, it was over."
The second Fitch jumper, the open three-pointer, had a special place in Moss' mind.
"I knew it was good," he said, "and I knew we were going home with a win."