Fitch to play tonight

February 18, 2004|LARRY VAUGHT

LEXINGTON - Cliff Hawkins can't wait to play Arkansas tonight, especially since Gerald Fitch should also be back in the lineup.

"After you lose a game, you want to get right back out there and play. The only way to really put a loss behind you to go out and win a game," said Kentucky's senior point guard.

The Wildcats (17-4, 7-3 Southeastern Conference) will try to bounce back from their 74-68 loss at Georgia Saturday when they host Arkansas (11-11, 3-8) tonight.

"Arkansas is very capable of beating us," Kentucky coach Tubby Smith said. "They are very athletic. They have guys who can put the ball on the floor. We seem to have a problem defending people who can take us one-on-one off the dribble."


One thing that should help Kentucky is that Fitch, the team's leading scorer, expects to play after missing three games because of an injury to the index finger on his shooting hand.

"I think he'll play. He looked comfortable shooting (in practice Monday)," Smith said. "He's running well. It looked like he had good stamina. He didn't seem to be favoring his hand. But it is going to be sore when he finishes playing."

Fitch isn't worried about the pain or any lingering impact after tonight's game.

"You are always going to have some pain," Fitch said. "It's nothing I can't handle. I would play 39 minutes if it was up to me. I just really want to get back out there."

His teammates are eager to have him back. Fitch averages 15.8 points and 3.9 rebounds per game. He's hit 46 3-point shots. That's one more 3-pointer than UK's other four normal starters have combined to make this season.

"He's looking better every day. His shot is getting better and he was catching the ball without grimacing yesterday," sophomore Ravi Moss said.

"He's been our go-to guy," Hawkins said. "We need not only his scoring, but his experience. He's a guy you can depend on."

Smith said Kentucky misses his toughness and ballhandling more than anything else against Georgia.

"We got by two games without him, but nobody else really got up in us like Georgia did," Smith said. "They play a physical style that Gerald can handle. Without him, we struggled."

Arkansas' offensive capabilities impress Smith

Smith said Arkansas will change defenses and use a variety of defenses as well as an occasional press. However, the Kentucky coach seemed more impressed with Arkansas' offensive capabilities.

Sophomore forward Matt Jones, the starting quarterback when Arkansas beat UK in seven overtimes on the football field in October, has given the Razorbacks a boost with his recent play. He's averaging 10.3 points, 6.8 rebounds, 3.5 assists and 2.3 steals per game over the last four games.

"He's playing extremely well," Smith said. "He's a very skilled player. He runs extremely well and has great vision. He finds open people and he makes good decisions. He's a good athlete and is very, very talented."

LSU coach John Brady said he noticed a big difference in Arkansas' play the second time the teams played this season because of Jones.

"He gives them a presence they need around the basket," Brady said. "He brings a toughness and low-post defense that they needed."

Moss has given Kentucky the same type of toughness when Smith has gone to him. He also hit a career-high three 3-pointers at Georgia.

"He's a very aggressive, physical player," Smith said. "That's his game. He knows it his way to get to play. He plays that way all the time. Some guys are more finesse. He's physical, something we need."

Moss said he was more of a scorer in high school, but knew his role would change when he decided to become a walk-on player at UK.

"Everybody scores in high school. I didn't have to do all that dirty work then. Now I do that," Moss said. "I just try to move around a lot. I guess I'm a ball magnet. I want to be where the ball is. I'm not the quickest or biggest guy, but I can be the toughest guy."

Smith questioned his team's toughness at Georgia after starters Erik Daniels, Chuck Hayes and Antwain Barbour combined for just one second-half field goal. The one player who did score was Kelenna Azubuike, who was 7-for-14 from the field and 7-for-7 at the foul line for a career-high 23 points.

"He was one of our bright spots," Smith said. "But we've got to get production from more people. That's why we've spent a lot of time shooting in practice."

The Wildcats could be without reserve point guard Brandon Stockton tonight. He missed an earlier game because of illness, and Smith said a breathing problem could sideline him again. That would leave Josh Carrier as Hawkins' primary backup unless Smith decides to use Fitch at point guard.

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