Republished from the Jefferson City News Tribune
COLUMBIA — Jakeenan Gant had to wait for his first shot at college basketball.
He had to wait the first nine games of his freshman season, when he was sidelined by an investigation regarding his eligibility.
Then, when he joined Missouri for the Tigers’ 10th game of the year, he had to wait some more.
Gant was the last scholarship player to take the Mizzou Arena floor in the Tigers’ game Saturday against Xavier, but he made his presence known.
The 6-foot-8 freshman received a round of applause when entering the game with 8:50 to play in the first half. The crowd gave him another hand when he checked out with 1:42 left in the game. In between, he drew more cheers than any other Tiger this season, scoring 13 points in his 15 minutes on the court and providing a burst during Missouri’s comeback attempt, which fell short at 74-58.
His first shot was a good one. With Missouri trailing 20-7, Gant got off his first field-goal attempt as a Tiger. A baseline jumper from the left side of the court, it swished through, and the Missouri faithful responded with a roar.
“Jakeenan coming in and making the shot, I thought that kind of picked everybody up,” coach Kim Anderson said.
Less than two minutes later, Gant sank two free throws and Missouri’s only 3-pointer of the game to ignite a 7-0 run that brought Missouri within six points.
Gant contributed more points — seven — than minutes — five — in the first half, and his 13 total points were the most by a Tiger in 15 or fewer minutes since 2009, according to Missouri historian Tom Orf.
Gant, who was not made available to media after the game, was declared inactive Nov. 14, just before Missouri’s season-opening loss to Missouri-Kansas City. He continued to practice with the team but did not travel to the EA Sports Maui Invitational, and it was unknown when Gant would be able to play. Anderson said Saturday he hadn’t known Gant would be returning for Missouri’s 10th game.
The first-year coach was sure happy to have him back, though. Gant seemed to make up for some of the energy the 5-5 team has noticeably lacked in its underwhelming start to the season.
“He gave us a big spark,” senior guard Keith Shamburger said. “We’re happy to have him back.”
Then again, it has only been one game.
“I don’t want to put the pressure on him that he’s going to come in here and all of a sudden we’re going to win 15 games in a row,” Anderson said. “I don’t think that. I think Jakeenan’s a good young player, and his development took a little bit of a skid here during this nine games, but he kept working in practice, and now he’s going to get to play in games, and that’ll help him.”
Anderson said Gant did a good job of staying in shape during his weeks on the scout team. Anderson expected Gant to play Saturday, but he didn’t know if it would be for any more than two or three minutes. The Georgia native fit in so well, however, Anderson had no choice but to leave him in. Gant shot at a 50 percent clip from the floor, was perfect from the free-throw line, and trailed only Johnathan Williams III in team scoring.
He made some noise on defense, too, contributing two crowd-pleasing blocks and a steal. The defensive end might be where he has the most catching up to do.
“It is tough, but he’s athletic,” said Anderson, whose early emphasis as a coach has been defense. “He’s going to mistakes, but he isn’t going to be the only one that makes mistakes. I thought he did a pretty fair job, really, because we had him guarding some quicker guys, and he did some good things on the weak side.”
Gant is one of three four-star freshmen in this Missouri recruiting class, and the other two recruits might have some wisdom to impart. Montaque Gill-Caesar of Vaughan, Ontario, has been the Tigers’ leading scorer thus far, but he has noticed his early scoring prowess earned him added attention from defenses. Meanwhile, Namon Wright of Los Angeles was perfect from the field in his first collegiate start, a 21-point performance against Chaminade. The next game, however, things didn’t come quite as easily, and Wright was held to four points against Southeast Missouri State.
“They all watch video,” Anderson said, referring to opponents.
Even if Missouri’s next opponent, Illinois, keeps a few more eyes on Gant, the Tigers are more than happy to have another weapon in their rotation.
“He’s bringing scoring and rebounding and we really need that right now,” Williams said. “He’s overall just a great player and a great guy. I know he has strong faith, and he’s just a tough guy to make it through this. I’ve been there for him, and the whole team has been there for him, just had his back and been praying for him.”
If Gant’s first shot at college basketball is any indication, it will have been worth the wait.