When Tennessee Tech drained seven of its first eight 3-point tries en route to a 30-23 lead Saturday at Thompson-Boling Arena, Vol coach Cuonzo Martin called on the Vols’ best defensive player, Armani Moore.
Result: Armani was all over Tech like a not-so-cheap suit.
The Golden Eagles made just 2 of 12 subsequent 3-point tries as Tennessee dominated the final 25 minutes en route to an 84-63 romp.
“I felt like my job was to go out there and defend, try to change the game,” Moore said.
He changed it, all right.
“Armani came in and played with passion and heart,” Martin said. “He does that all the time. He gave us what we needed to get over that mental hump, and we carried that on into the second half.”
Moore wound up contributing 5 points, 6 rebounds and 2 blocks in 16 stellar minutes. The 6-foot-5 sophomore guard isn’t much of an offensive threat but the energy and athleticism he displays on defense make him one valuable Volunteer.
“My role on this team is playing hard, playing defense,” he said. “We’ve got to play smart on defense and know our roles.”
Although the Golden Eagles hit some unlikely 3s in their early barrage, Martin felt their 7-of-8 start was more an indictment of Tennessee than a tribute to Tennessee Tech.
“Poor defense,” he grumbled. “It was poor defense; that’s all. They like to shoot a lot of 3s. It was just poor defense.”
Slow starts proved costly in losses to Xavier and UTEP. The Vols appeared to correct the flaw in defeats of Xavier and Wake Forest, only to have the problem resurface on Saturday.
“We didn’t come to play early in the first half,” Martin said.”I thought a couple of guys just weren’t locked in out of the gate.”
One guy who was locked in was Armani Moore, who was omitted from the eight-man playing rotation Martin announced earlier this week. Some players would have pouted. Not Moore. He wasn’t even disappointed.
“Not really,” he said. “Last year I didn’t play much at the beginning of the season, so it was pretty much the same thing. I’ve got a couple of screws I’ve got to tighten up, so I just work hard in practice. Then when my name is called I go out there and do what I can do.”
What he can do is provide a tremendous spark off the bench, as he did Saturday afternoon with his toughness and eye-popping athleticism.
On one Tennessee Tech possession he blocked a shot under the basket. When another Golden Eagle got the loose ball and tried a putback Moore blocked it, too. Blessed with explosive leaping ability and superior timing, he clearly relishes the opportunity to reject shots.
“You never know when it’s going to come,” he said. “That’s a part of my defense, part of what I do. I was in the right position at the right time and I was able to get the blocks.”
Moore’s defensive brilliance somewhat obscured the fact that Jarnell Stokes posted his fourth consecutive double-double – 19 points and 13 rebounds. Six of his rebounds came off the offensive glass.
“When Jarnell is aggressive he plays well, whether he’s making or missing shots,” Martin said. “When he’s aggressive and assertive, attacking the rim, he normally has success.”
Stokes was ultra-aggressive on Saturday, helping Tennessee win the backboard battle 43-29 but also muscling home 8 of 14 shots on the inside.
“I let guys like Jordan (McRae) score because he can score with the best in the nation,” Stokes said, “but I feel like the team needs me to score also. These last couple of games with me scoring the ball I think guys realize that will help us win a lot. Jordan is one of the best scorers in the nation but we also need some inside presence.”
McRae rallied from a slow start to contribute 16 points and a team-high 4 assists. Josh Richardson played his usual steady game, contributing 13 points, 3 rebounds, an assist and a block. Jeronne Maymon, benched for showing up late, added 13 points, 7 rebounds and 3 assists in 22 relief minutes. Freshman A.J. Davis started in his place.
Tennessee was guilty of just five turnovers, marking the fifth game in a row in which the Vols registered a single-digit turnover total.
Tennessee, now 6-2, returns to action one week from today, visiting No. 11 Wichita State. Tennessee Tech drops to 5-6 with the loss.