Little things often make a big difference in basketball, which is why Armani Moore could be a central figure in tonight's Tennessee-Vanderbilt game at Thompson-Boling Arena.
The 6-foot-5 freshman from Kennesaw, Ga., isn't going to wow anyone with his point and assist totals but he excels at the little things — hustling, boxing out, playing actively on defense, battling for loose balls and crashing the backboards.
Moore's line Saturday against Alabama — 4 points, 0 assists, 0 steals and 2 turnovers — suggests he was a non-factor when, in fact, he grabbed 7 rebounds and made three clutch plays in the last five minutes that enabled the Vols to win 54-53.
With Alabama leading 47-44, the Tide's Nick Jacobs appeared to pull down an offensive rebound, only to have Moore strip him of the ball with 4:21 remaining. Moore was credited with a rebound, rather than a steal, but the point was moot when Tennessee converted the possession into a pair of Jordan McRae free throws that narrowed the gap to 47-46.
Moore then played air-tight defense on Bama's Andrew Steele, causing him to force a contested 3-point try. Crashing the boards, Moore reeled in the long rebound and passed to Trae Golden, whose 45-foot assist produced a Jarnell Stokes layup and a 48-47 Tennessee lead with 3:31 to play.
Clearly, Moore played a pivotal role in helping Tennessee grind its way to victory in the last five minutes.
"I think he showed lot of poise," Golden said. "He's a great player, and I think if he continues to play that way he'll be huge for our team."
Moore credited his late-game poise to Tennessee head coach Cuonzo Martin.
"Coach Martin has confidence in me, so that gives me confidence in myself," the player said. "If he trusts me, then I feel like I'm in the right spot to do the right things."
Moore began the season as the chief backup to Golden at point guard. Having played mostly shooting guard in high school, Moore struggled mightily at the new position and eventually dropped out of the rotation. He played just 13 minutes in Games 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12 and 13 combined.
Since returning to shooting guard, however, Moore has seen his minutes and his production increase dramatically. He matched his season's high with 7 points in 21 minutes Jan. 12 at Alabama, then added 5 points, 4 rebounds and a block in 12 minutes Jan. 15 at Kentucky. He recorded 11 rebounds, 4 assists and a block in 25 minutes Jan. 19 against Mississippi State, then led the Vols in rebounds (8), assists (4) and blocks (3) in 29 minutes Jan. 24 at Ole Miss.
As a result, 17 days after spending all of Game 13 on the bench, Moore earned his first college start in Game 18 against Bama. There's a valuable lesson in there.
"That basically says that I've been working hard, and you get what you deserve," he said. "As long as I keep fighting and competing, then I'll have a good outcome."
A low-key sort, Moore seemed remarkably calm in his first college start.
"I wasn't nervous at all," he said. "Basically, I had the same feeling as when I come off the bench."
Tennessee's head coach thought Moore played well enough to keep his starting job.
"Armani competed," Martin said. "He's a tough, tough young guy. He's all over the place and he accepts challenges."
One challenge facing Moore is to continue building on his recent success.
"I've seen constant improvement," Golden said. "He's a great player as a freshman. The biggest thing is, he's going to keep getting better."
GAME NOTES: Tennessee brings a 10-8 overall record and a 2-4 SEC mark into tonight's game. Vanderbilt is 8-10 and 2-4.... The Vols and Commodores have three common opponents. Tennessee beat Xavier 51-47 Dec. 29 in Knoxville; Vandy beat Xavier 66-64 Dec. 6 in Cincinnati. Tennessee lost to Kentucky 75-65 Jan. 15 at Lexington; Vanderbilt lost to Kentucky 60-58 Jan. 10 in Nashville; Tennessee lost to Ole Miss 92-74 Jan. 9 in Knoxville; Vanderbilt lost to Ole Miss 89-79 Jan. 15 in Nashville.... Both Tennessee's Cuonzo Martin and Vandy's Kevin Stallings are Purdue graduates who played for Gene Keady. Martin represented the Boilermakers from 1991-95, Stallings from 1980-82.... The Vols and Commodores split last year's meetings — Vanderbilt rolling 65-47 Jan. 24 in Nashville but Tennessee prevailing 68-61 March 3 in Knoxville.... Vol sophomore Jarnell Stokes' 18 rebounds versus Alabama last Saturday were the most by an SEC player this season.... Tennessee junior Jordan McRae continues to rank second among SEC scorers (20.8 points per game) in league competition only.... Tonight's game will be aired on ESPNU with a 7:02 ET tipoff.