Armani suits Vol needs

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Some basketball players struggle to find their niche. Then there's aptly named Armani Moore, who fits his role like a well-tailored suit.

Moore, a sophomore guard from Kennesaw, Ga., plays a key role for a Tennessee program whose starters are prone to occasional defensive and emotional lulls. When these lapses occur head coach Cuonzo Martin counts on Moore to provide instant energy and defensive intensity off the bench.

"I always do … every time," Martin said. "If it gets slow he's going in the game because he raises the energy level and he's ready to battle. He's going to kick up some dust one way or the other."

No better example exists than Wednesday's game against visiting Arkansas. With Tennessee down by four points and looking awful through the first six minutes, Moore entered the lineup and provided an immediate spark.

He assisted Jeronne Maymon for a layup mere seconds after taking the floor. He got an offensive rebound and a defensive rebound, then drained a 3-pointer that gave Tennessee a 16-13 lead. He returned to the bench moments later, having sparked an 11-2 spurt that turned a 9-13 deficit into a 20-15 lead.

After just 80 seconds on the sidelines, Moore returned to the action and again provided a spark – this time with his mind-boggling hops. He got a defensive rebound, then blocked a shot. When 6-foot-10 Razorback Bobby Portis got the loose ball and went up for a put-back, the 6-foot-5 Moore rejected his second shot of the possession. The crowd, relatively lifeless to that point, roared its approval.

After sinking a driving five-footer, he registered his third blocked shot of the half with 2:00 left to the break, then added his fourth at 1:34. He returned to the bench moments later, having sparked an 18-13 rally that widened a 21-20 lead to 39-33.

Moore's halftime stat line underscored his impact: 5 points, 4 rebounds, 4 blocks and an assist in 13 minutes. Even more importantly, his hustle brought the crowd to life. Asked after the game if he heard the fan response to his dynamic shot blocks, he smiled sheepishly and replied: "To be honest, I can't hear nothin' when I'm out there on the court. I'm just zoned in."

He wasn't quite so "zoned in" after intermission, contributing just one steal in the second half. Still, those hustle plays he made in the first half clearly turned the game Tennessee's way.

"That's Armani," teammate Jordan McRae said. "He makes those kinds of plays in practice all the time – blocks and things like that. We need somebody like that all the time to come in and bring energy for us."

Fellow Vol Jeronne Maymon agreed, noting: "Armani is a really special player for us. He brings a lot of energy. He can switch (and guard positions) one through five. He's a tough guy, and that's what we need coming off the bench. He has that spark that we need."

Even when he isn't producing points, rebounds and blocked shots, Moore's presence on the floor has impact: His all-out hustle prompts his teammates to play harder.

"Definitely, because he is really aggressive," Maymon said. "He changes the pace of the game when he comes in. He gets the ball, rebounds and blocked shots. We need him to come in there and do that; be that spark for us."

The consummate team player, Moore is happy to provide that spark, whether he's on the floor or on the bench.

"I'm always screaming, whether I'm on the court or off the court," he said. "They (teammates) are going to hear me regardless. Any way I can I try to make an impact."

Because his offensive skills remain somewhat raw, Moore makes most of his impact on the other end of the floor.

"I'm all about playing defense, getting stops, helping my teammates," he said. "On the offensive end, when it comes time for me to score I'll do that. But my thing is to get my team riled up on the defensive side of the ball."

Thanks to amazing timing and leaping ability, Moore routinely sends opposing field-goal attempts sailing into the stands. He clearly relishes rejecting shots.

"Yeah," he said, grinning broadly. "I think that's one of my most favorite things to do in a basketball game."

When Tennessee staggered to a 9-8 record in the opening months of the 2012-13 season, Moore joined the starting five as an undersized power forward. The Vols promptly claimed 10 of their final 13 regular-season games. A month into the 2013-14 season, however, he found himself at the end of the bench. After seeing 16 minutes of action Dec. 7 against Tennessee Tech, he played just 18 minutes in the next eight games combined … never leaving the bench in four of them. Showing remarkable maturity, he never complained.

"I really wasn't worried about not playing much," he said. "I was working hard on my game, staying confident instead of worrying about it. I felt like my time would come, and I was going to be ready to play."

His time came last Saturday at Kentucky, when he produced 4 points, 3 rebounds, an assist and a steal in 15 quality relief minutes. That earned him an 18-minute stint Wednesday against Arkansas. Moore projects to get meaningful minutes again when the Vols visit sixth-ranked Florida Saturday at 4.

"His minutes will continue to grow because of how he plays," Martin said. "We probably need to get him running more at the 4 spot (power forward) in practice for when we go with four guards. We had that stretch run last year when he was the starting 4 for us, even though he's a guard. We probably need to get him acclimated to more 4."

At 6-feet-5 and 215 pounds, Moore is giving away three inches of height and 30 pounds of heft to most SEC power forwards. He offsets these handicaps with tremendous grit, determination and athleticism.

"Armani's a tough kid," Martin said. "I knew it was just a matter of time for him (to make an impact). He can play three or four positions for us. He competes, doesn't let up."

And that's why Armani suits his sixth-man role to a T.

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