CINCINNATI (AP)—Marshall was within six points, and the two sections of green-clad fans were starting to raise a ruckus and anticipate an upset.
Gerald Fitch wouldn’t let it happen.
The senior guard scored 24 points and made the decisive shots down the stretch Monday night, helping No. 9 Kentucky hang on for an 89-76 victory in the Wildcats’ home away from home.
Fitch, who had a career-high 36 points against Tennessee Tech on Friday, was the only consistent threat for Kentucky (3-0), which let a 13-point lead dwindle to six in the closing minutes.
Fitch ended the comeback by hitting a pull-up jumper that started the seven-point run that closed it out.
“You’ve got to have it every game, especially if you’re going to be the guy they depend on,” said Fitch, who went 10-of-19 from the field. “They got it down kind of close, and we were kind of flat. I was just trying to pick it up.”
Marshall (1-2) hit 10 3-pointers to keep Kentucky fidgety, but missed its last five shots from behind the arc as it failed to score over the last four minutes.
Kelenna Azubuike added 16 points and Erik Daniels had 14 for Kentucky, which has won all 11 of its games with Marshall.
Ronny Dawn led Marshall with a career-high 23 points, going 7-of-9 on 3s to prevent the Wildcats from pulling away. He hit his first five 3-point shots, several of them from behind the NBA line on the floor.
“Ronny Dawn was excited to play,” Marshall coach Ron Jirsa said. “He was as hot as hot could be.”
The overwhelming majority of the crowd of 13,913 wore blue and white for Kentucky’s annual visit to Cincinnati. The Wildcats are 8-1 all-time at the downtown arena, the only loss to Dayton in 1999.
Jirsa was an assistant at Dayton when it pulled off the upset. He also was one of coach Tubby Smith’s assistants at Tulsa and Georgia.
Jirsa tried every sort of defense to slow Kentucky, with limited success. The Wildcats took a 47-34 halftime lead by running fast breaks and taking advantage of Marshall’s front line.
Four turnovers set up a 13-point run that put Kentucky ahead to stay 28-17 midway through the half. The Wildcats repeatedly had players slip free inside for easy baskets, making up for their poor outside shooting.
Fitch had 12 points in the first half, when his main job was to try to shut down Dawn after an early flurry of 3-pointers. The junior guard shoots 42 percent from behind the arc, one of the best marks in Marshall history.
“I’m disappointed in the way we defended the 3-point shot,” Smith said. “We tried a number of people on Dawn and couldn’t slow him down. That’s the biggest disappointment. That was our Achilles’ heel tonight.”
Dawn hit three consecutive 3s as Marshall stayed close in the opening minutes. Fitch then chased him around the floor, limiting him to one more 3-pointer in the half as Kentucky pulled ahead by as many as 13 points.
By that point, the Wildcats sensed the game might come down to whether they could stop Dawn.
“We kind of underestimated him, and he burned us,” Daniels said. “We knew he could shoot, but we didn’t get out to guard him early.”
Dawn hit two more 3s, and David Anderson had a pull-up jumper and a three-point play that cut it to 64-60 with 11:18 left, making the two sections of Marshall fans erupt. Smith huddled with his coaches during a timeout, discussing a course of action.
The decision: take it inside. Azubuike’s dunk started a 13-4 spurt, which he completed by stealing Dawn’s crosscourt pass and going in for another dunk.
Dawn made another long 3-pointer and Marvin Black dunked off a rebound, cutting it to 82-76 with 4:27 to go. Fitch’s pull-up jumper ended the comeback.