ST. LOUIS — Steve Moore was surprised to hear Missouri men's basketball coach Frank Haith call his name from the bench so early.
Not even three minutes into the Braggin' Rights game against Illinois at Scottrade Center in St. Louis, Missouri forward Ricardo Ratliffe was already in foul trouble. Haith called on Steve Moore, his only other experienced forward, to replace Ratliffe. His job: cover 7-foot-1 Illinois center Meyers Leonard, who had a full four inches on Moore.
"He was a force, he's a tall, real strong kid, and really skilled," Moore said of Leonard. "It really showed a lot about me, how disciplined I would be, to stay on my feet and hold my ground. He's a great player."
Moore had several key blocks early in the first half that helped Missouri gain an early lead. As Illinois players kept trying to drive to the net, Moore kept turning them away. He blocked a rebound shot that eventually turned into a layup for Phil Pressey.
He collected a defensive rebound and gave the ball to Phil Pressey, who passed to Kim English who made a 3-point shot that gave Missouri a 19-9 lead with 13 minutes left in the first half.
So though Moore only had two points against Illinois, he was indirectly responsible for many more than that.
"Steve gave us a tremendous lift there in the first half," Haith said. "The stuff didn't show up on the stat sheet, he was just active, he had presence, deflections, blocked shots."
Moore's energy carried an 11-point Missouri lead into the locker room at halftime, but Haith put Ratliffe back in to start the second half.
It didn't last long.
Illinois climbed to within nine points in the first three minutes before Haith, frustrated, jumped from his crouch on the sideline, turned around and yelled for Moore.
Moore jumped from the bench and replaced Ratliffe, again trying to give Missouri a jolt.
"I was just trying to do what I do every game. Just try to be active, try to get deflections, block shots, do what's expected of me," Moore said. "I'm an energy guy, I just try to come off the bench and give that spark and fortunately I was able to do that tonight."
But Moore would provide an even greater impact than being an "energy guy" later in the half when Missouri and Illinois were competing for the lead.
With less than seven minutes remaining and Missouri trailing 62-61, Moore snagged an offensive rebound, the ball eventually finding its way to Phil Pressey at the top of the arc. Pressey took a few steps forward before laying the ball gently into the basket to give Missouri a one-point lead.
Just two minutes later, Missouri was trailing yet again. And again Moore provided much-needed presence in the offensive end.
Down by a point, Phil Pressey passed the ball to Dixon at the top of the arc. Dixon stood patiently, dribbling the ball with a defender almost on top of him.
"Steve!" Dixon yelled.
Moore must not have heard him over the cheers of 22,087 Missouri and Illinois fans alternately screaming in jubilation and sorrow in a game that featured nine lead changes.
"Steve!" Dixon yelled again.
Moore rumbled toward Dixon from the post, planted his feet firmly to the left of the Illinois defender and put both of his hands together in his midsection. It was one of his most effective picks of the night, as Dixon swung right and drained a 3-point shot to put Missouri ahead 66-64.
Moore, who finished with two points, three blocks and five rebounds was taken out of the game in favor of Ratliffe immediately after, but Moore's presence and impact on the court was undeniable and is also indicative of what he views as a turnaround late in his collegiate career.
"I personally feel like it's a complete 180," Moore said. "I'm more mobile, more agile, I can go up and down the court a lot longer than I used to ... It's really a blessing for me to have this new coaching staff and just to have a good a season as I have and a successful senior year thus far."