ATLANTA (AP)—Gerald Fitch doesn’t mind coming off the bench, just as long as Kentucky wins.
“The coach has to decide what makes the team play better and, actually, it worked,” Fitch said. “It never did bother me. He knows it doesn’t bother me.”
Fitch scored 24 points and Erik Daniels added 21, and the eighth-ranked Wildcats beat South Carolina 78-63 Saturday for a chance to win their 25th Southeastern Conference tournament title.
The Wildcats (25-4) got their season-high eighth straight victory and will face Florida, which beat Vanderbilt 91-69, in the final Sunday. Kentucky could earn a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament with a win over the Gators.
Only a few minutes before tipoff, coach Tubby Smith told Fitch, a senior guard, that Antwaine Barbour would start in his place. Smith thought Barbour matched up better against South Carolina guards Mike Boynton and Josh Gonner.
“It didn’t make no difference to me,” Fitch said. “It’s kind of surprising but it’s nothing bad.”
Gonner led South Carolina (23-10) with 17 points. Carlos Powell added 12 for the Gamecocks, who had won two straight in the tournament after ending the regular season with six losses in eight games, including an 84-65 setback at home to Kentucky.
South Carolina also lost 65-64 at Kentucky on Feb. 7.
“We ran out of bodies, we ran of energy and we ran out of time,” South Carolina coach Dave Odom said. “We came in looking at the last two games we played Kentucky—what went right in Lexington and what went wrong in Columbia. They turned up the defensive pressure in the second half.”
Fitch, a starter until his sprained finger put Barbour in the lineup for a three-point win at Florida on Feb. 3, returned to the bench after starting the last two games. Fitch played only five minutes of the first half as Kentucky built a 40-34 halftime lead.
“He was fresh,” Odom said of Fitch. “Fresh players play well.”
Fitch and Daniels took over the game after South Carolina’s Mike Boynton’s 3-pointer cut the Wildcats’ advantage to 61-54 with 7:08 remaining.
Powell’s lay-in made it 63-56 at the 6:13 mark, and Fitch hit a straightway 3 with 3:21 remaining that put the game out of reach.
Daniels had a game-high six rebounds for Kentucky, which improved to 17-0 in SEC tournament semifinals.
Fitch, playing 14 minutes of the second half, scored 19 points on 6-of-9 shooting after intermission.
Cliff Hawkins had five assists for the Wildcats, including a feed to Daniels that the senior forward converted into a left-handed leaner to make it 55-41 with 11:55 remaining.
Kentucky forced the first eight turnovers of the game, taking a 33-24 lead as Daniels hit a left-handed turnaround jumper in the lane. Smith credited the defense of Hawkins, a senior point guard, with setting the Wildcats’ tempo.
“Cliff is one of the best defensive players I’ve ever had the opportunity to coach,” Smith said. “He makes them make hurried shots. He’s always on you. He makes you work at both ends of the court.”
Under Smith, the Wildcats are now 13-2 in the SEC tournament. Kentucky improved to 14-4 in SEC tournament games in Atlanta, including a 14-2 mark at the Georgia Dome.
Kelenna Azubuike, who scored 14 points on 5-of-7 shooting for Kentucky, thinks Fitch, Daniels, Hawkins and Barbour and the Wildcats’ renowned caravans of traveling fans help the Wildcats stay focused on the road. In the last 54 games away from Lexington, Kentucky is 50-5.
“The seniors definitely know how to keep us focused on the road when the crowd’s against us,” Azubuike said. “And great coaching. Our coaches do a great job of getting us mentally prepared.
“We know what to expect. And the fans. We look up, we see that three-quarters of the section is Kentucky fans. That definitely helps.”