Citadel’s Ashton Moore making most of his senior season

The Citadel's Ashton Moore chases a loose ball against Furman's Stephen Croone in a game played last week at McAlister Field House. Paul Zoeller/Staff

In the first two games of last season, The Citadel’s Ashton Moore shot a combined 2-for-21 from the field in losses to VMI and Army at the All-Military Classic at VMI’s Cameron Hall in Lexington, Va., which just so happens to be his home state.

The Suffolk, Va., native leads the Bulldogs back to that very arena to battle the Keydets on Saturday at 1 p.m.

“I feel like I’m playing at a different level with more confidence than I’ve ever had,” Moore said. “My teammates recognize that and know that I refuse to let them down. I’m either going to make plays myself or make plays to set them up.”

In order to fully grasp the transformation that Moore has made, one must revisit his high school career, which at one point was tenuous at best.

After nearly getting sent back to the JV team prior to his junior year at Nansemond River High School, Moore developed his physique and his jump shot to average better than 20 points per game over his final two seasons.

Those numbers garnered interest from Liberty, UNC Greensboro and Mount St. Mary’s among others, but he ultimately became Chuck Driesell’s final signee in the coach’s first recruiting class at The Citadel for the 2011 season.

The shooting specialist showed flashes of his potential during his freshman season with a 30-point performance in a victory over UVA-Wise, becoming the first Bulldog since the 1972-73 season to do so.

However, strong starts turned into fading finishes over his first two seasons, as he averaged a pedestrian 6.5 points per game.

Again, weight room trips became a summer occupation. Driesell took notice.

“I saw him mature physically during the summer going into his junior year. He’d been working really hard and his conditioning accelerated,” he said. “The daily grind of a college athlete wears on a player, and I think that’s what happened to him his first two years.”

With the necessary improvements made, an invigorated Moore embarked on his junior season.

Unfortunately, those first two games in the heart of the Shenandoah Valley — and much of the next three months — cast an all-too-familiar shadow.

“After all that hard work over the summer, I didn’t play as well as I wanted to and it put me in a hole,” Moore said. “I had to crawl out of it, and once I saw the light, I wasn’t going back in.”

Moore averaged 23 points per game over the final seven games and scored 35 points against former SoCon rival Davidson on Feb. 17.

While that night at McAlister Field House seemed to be the on-court turning point, he would officially assume the role of team leader less than a week later after an uninspired 70-52 loss at Western Carolina on Feb. 22, which clinched The Citadel’s school-record 17th consecutive defeat.

Following a five-hour bus ride from Cullowhee, N.C. back to Charleston, the usually reserved Moore kept the team in the locker room and delivered a fiery speech that has had a lasting impact.

“My team saw a side of me that they’ve never seen,” he said. “There was a lot of emotion and frustration that had built up, and I had to let them know how blessed and talented we were to be here and there was no reason we couldn’t step up and grasp the moment. I think from then on, they looked at me as more of a leader, and I’m grateful for that moment.”

This season has been his showcase, much to the delight of his teammates, his coaches and his fans.

Last Thursday against Wofford, Moore scored a season-high 29 points in the Bulldogs’ 69-66 victory.

“When I’m on, I really don’t need much room,” Moore said. “If I get a quick view of the hoop and stay focused, that’s all I need.”

While Moore has already staked his claim as one of the league’s best, Driesell has preached to his senior star to never lose sight of the path that got him here.

“He’s going to have to work even harder as teams will find different ways to defend him and frustrate him,” Driesell said. “That all comes with the respect that he’s earning.”