Armani's big finish lifts Vols

Come to InsideTennessee for unsurpassed coverage of Vol hoops. Check out this colorful look at the unexpected hero of Tennessee's home opener.

Leading just 45-44 with 10½ minutes left in Thursday’s game against Texas Southern, the Tennessee Vols unleashed a secret weapon so obscure that even they seemed surprised by it.

Armani Moore.

Known previously for his shot-blocking and defensive prowess, the 6-foot-5 junior did nothing to change that perception in the game’s first 29 minutes, going scoreless on 0-for-5 shooting. With the visiting Tigers on the verge of spoiling the home opener, however, Moore suddenly became downright offensive.

He hit a turnaround jumper from 12 feet that pushed the lead to 47-44. He scored on a putback to bump the lead to 53-46 with 7:12 left. His layup widened the gap to 55-47 with 6:32 remaining. Returning to defensive mode, he blocked a layup with 3:10 left and made a key steal at the 2:44 mark.

With Tennessee clinging to a 63-52 lead, Moore produced five of the Vols’ final seven points to seal a 70-58 victory. After scoring zero points in the first 29 minutes he posted 11 in the final 11 minutes. In addition to notching the first double-digit scoring total of his career, he led the Vols in offensive rebounds (6), total rebounds (8), blocks (3) and steals (2) before an announced crowd of 13,236 at Thompson-Boling Arena.

For a team that started freshmen Jabari McGhee and Willie Carmichael, plus first-year JUCO transfer Kevin Punter, having a junior like Moore come through in the clutch was huge.

“I know I’ve got to bring it each and every night,” he said. “I can’t really take no nights off. Eventually, I started to pull it all together – scoring a little bit, blocking a couple of shots. That always gets me going a little bit. Once I got my groove I was able to get a couple of buckets.”

Tennessee’s other veteran, senior Josh Richardson, found his groove Thursday night, as well. He finished with 19 points, 8 rebounds, 2 assists and 2 steals in 36 turnover-free minutes at the point. Richardson understands that this baby-faced Vol squad will go only as far as he and Moore can lead it, so he’s grateful for the assist.

“It’s a big help,” Richardson said. “To have to lead ‘em by myself would be tough. He does a good job of chiming in with what I say and coming up with things on his own.”

Richardson was understandably happy to see Moore rally from his slow start to help spark Tennessee’s offense down the stretch. The two of them combined to score 19 of the Vols' final 25 points.

“We just figured out that we had to take the game over,” Richardson said. “We were having a drought scoring there for a while in the second half. Then I got aggressive, and he came with me.”

Indeed he did. Despite the 0-for-5 start, Moore never stopped attacking the basket and looking to score. He finished 5 of 12 from the field.

“No doubt, you should always come out being as aggressive as you can be,” he said. “But the most important thing is also being smart at the same time. I felt like a few times in the first half I was forcing up bad shots.”

After playing a poor first half, Moore went to the dressing room a bit discouraged. Fortunately, a teammate got him back on track.

Galen Campbell was a really good key for me tonight,” Moore said. “He talked to me at halftime, told me to settle down, stop forcing stuff and just let the game come to me. I feel like that’s what I did the second half.”

The win was Tennessee’s first under new head coach Donnie Tyndall, whose team trailed most of the first half en route to a 30-30 intermission tie. It wasn’t until the game’s final 10 minutes that fatigue (and Armani Moore) subdued the visiting Tigers, now 0-3.

“I thought the second half our press kind of wore ‘em down a little bit,” Tyndall said. “We caused some turnovers. We took their legs, where they’re not making as many jump shots and they miss some free throws because of fatigue. I thought that was the case tonight.”

Kevin Punter gave the Vols another good effort, contributing 13 points, 2 assists and a steal while splitting time between shooting guard and point guard. Tennessee also got a winning effort from 6-foot-8 freshman Willie Carmichael, who produced 10 points and 7 rebounds, 2 blocks and a steal in his first collegiate start.

After shooting a chilly 34.4 percent in the first half, the Vols warmed up to hit 53.8 percent after intermission. They shot an outstanding 43.8 percent (7 of 16) from 3-point range and a solid 76.5 percent (13 of 17) from the foul line. Tennessee also forced nine second-half turnovers (13 total) and won the boards 40-27 thanks to 20 offensive rebounds.

The victory was Tennessee's 23rd straight in home openers. This one was undeniably ugly but, coming off a season-opening 85-69 loss to Virginia Commonwealth at a neutral site, Tyndall was thrilled to square his Vol record at 1-1.

“It was awesome,” he said. “Our fans were fantastic. That’s so important to me. You always want to protect your home court. It’s been a dream of mine for a long time to be a head coach in this league (SEC), and Tennessee, as I’ve said before, is a dream job.

“It was an opportunity for us to go out and hopefully impress our fans so they’ll come back and watch us play. It certainly was a great experience, and I’m glad we got the W.”

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