A display of toughness has helped Mike Fitzgerald turn himself into the unlikely leading scorer in the Mountain West.
It’s the kind of toughness that any little brother can understand.
The youngest of five, including older two brothers who went on to play basketball in college, the Air Force senior has always battled against bigger and stronger players.
One of his brothers, Dan, stands 6-foot-10 and played at Marquette before launching a professional career in Japan.
“It’s not like they’ve been beating up on me to make me tough,” said Fitzgerald, whose father was also a college basketball player. “But they’ve just taught me when to be tough and the times when you need to just grit it out and make the plays.”
Fitzgerald’s scoring binge– including 30 points against Nevada and 22 at UNLV – has resulted from a combination of grit and touch. A lethal outside shooter, Fitzgerald has hit 7-of-9 3-pointers during that span. The biggest difference, however, has come in his tenacity in taking the ball to the rim and drawing contact from larger defenders.
It's really no different than taking it inside against a big brother.
The 6-foot-6 Fitzgerald has gone to the free-throw line 18 times in the two conference games after going just 20 times in the season’s first 12 games.
It’s boosted the stat line that he’s made 17 of those 18 attempts.
“I’ve noticed that, man, getting to the free-throw line can really help you out as a scorer and help your team out,” Fitzgerald said.
With 52 points through two conference games, Fitzgerald is easily the leading scorer in Mountain West games. Nevada’s Deonte Burton is second with 44 points.
“We always respected his ability to score the ball, so I wasn’t surprised that he was able to get double digits against us,” Nevada coach David Carter said. “I was surprised he had 30 points, but I wouldn’t have been surprised if he had 15 to 20 points. He’s a good shooter.”
Air Force coach Dave Pilipovich believes that the senior forward can continue to put up big offensive games even if he becomes a focal point of opposing defenses.
“He doesn’t have the strength as far as the size and the bulk, but Mike may be our toughest player,” Pilipovich said. “I mean, he’s tough. He’ll get bumped and pushed and knocked down and hit, and he’ll come right back at you.”
Pilipovich noted that Fitzgerald is also a cerebral player, smart enough to kick it to an open teammate if defenses collapse on him when he enters the lane.
This stretch has easily been the most prolific of Fitzgerald’s career at Air Force. His previous career-best was a 19-point effort against Arkansas-Pine Bluff. He played sparingly as a freshman and sophomore, averaged 10.4 points as a junior and suddenly has the hottest hand in one of the nation’s toughest leagues.
“It’s been great,” he said. “I’ve always believed in myself to be a scorer. I guess I also had that side to me where I’m a little bit of a selfless player and I’m not going to be taking 30 shots in a game. For me to get some of these points, it’s very rewarding.”