Republished from the Jefferson City News Tribune
COLUMBIA, Mo. — When Jakeenan Gant had his breakout game last season, it proved to be more of an outlier than a sign of things to come.
With Gant entering Missouri’s game today against Omaha (7 p.m., SECN) on the heels of his best performance this season, the Tigers are hoping it turns out to be more than a flash in the pan.
Gant had 15 points and 10 rebounds in six games this season before Friday’s game against Northern Illinois. He nearly matched that against the Huskies, putting up 11 and six.
“His big deal to me has been confidence,” Missouri head coach Kim Anderson said. “We’ve seen this in practice at times, and it was just so neat to see it in a game finally.”
Gant’s 18 minutes Friday were the most this season for the 6-foot-8 sophomore, even though Missouri’s lineup lacks for size.
He said Friday’s performance should help him assert himself going forward.
“I needed that bad,” he said. “That’s a confidence-builder, and it got me going a little bit more, going a little bit harder more in practice and just knowing what I need to do from now on.”
Freshman forward Kevin Puryear said he’s seen a change in the way Gant approaches practice.
“(Not) that the way he was practicing before was bad, just his aggressive approach to it and you can definitely see, he’s trying to get better,” Puryear said. “He’s definitely getting better in the process, and I think it’s going to be only uphill for him at this point.”
Gant said he was hesitant at times when practicing last season. After sitting nine games due to eligibility concerns, he had 13 points against Xavier in his debut. He reached double-digits just twice more, however.
“I was a freshman, I was nervous, I didn’t really know my role, kind of, I was playing behind (Johnathan Williams III),” Gant said. “New coaches, just all kind of different stuff, and just that’s what took advantage of me.”
Gant struggled to find his role early this year, too, when he settled for more jumpers, including seven 3-pointers — none of which he made.
Gant said Anderson told him, “Drive the ball, don’t shoot,” after his slow start this year.
“It’s not really nothing personal or nothing,” Gant said. “… It’s just, he’s trying to be a coach, trying to tell me what I’m good at doing. They want to see the old Jakeenan again, be more aggressive, just attacking more.”
It showed Friday, with Gant getting on the board via a putback dunk at the end of the first half. The rest of Gant’s points came in the final 20 minutes, and all but two came either in the paint or at the free-throw line.
“We just encourage him to stay aggressive, keep going to the rack,” Puryear said. “He did that on Friday and ended up really changing the game for us.”
While his offense struggled early this season, Gant was able to get in his fair share of swats. He has had a block in every game except Missouri’s loss to Northwestern, in which he only played five minutes. His seven blocks lead the team. Gant had four defensive rebounds, a steal and a block Friday.
“On the defensive side I kind of helped out more and got a little bit more involved (Friday),” he said, “and it just got me energized on the offensive side and gave me more energy and confidence.”
His play allowed Puryear, the team’s leading scorer, to get some much-needed rest against the Huskies.
“I think Kevin’s better when he’s not playing 35 minutes a game,” Anderson said, “especially when you get that type of production out of Jakeenan, so when Kevin came in at the end the last whatever it was, three, four, five minutes, he was fresh and played really well.”
Andereson revealed Monday that Gant had been playing with a shoulder injury sustained in the offseason. Gant said he had a bruised bone in his right shoulder, and he received a cortisone shot last month.
“It was bugging me a little bit,” he said. “but I’m fine now.”
The Tigers will look to start strong against Omaha (4-4), having begun their last two games with leads of 13-0 and 12-0. Despite the strong starts, however, Missouri (4-3) has yet to put together a complete game.
“I think there have been lapses in every game,” Anderson said. “… I think that sometimes we get going and we don’t understand why we got what we got, and we just have to understand the game, the flow of the game. We’re kind of a spurty team right now. Sometimes you play really well for periods of time and then you relax and when that happens, the other team strikes.”
The Tigers can’t afford any scoring lulls today. The Mavericks average 88.5 points per game and are coming off a 100-97 defeat of Montana State.
Ballhandling will be key for Missouri, as Omaha averages more than 10 steals per game — 4.25 of which come from Tra-Deon Hollins, who leads the nation in that category.
Anderson has coached against Omaha before. The Mavericks recently moved up from Division II, and Anderson faced them in the Mid-America Intercollegiate Athletics Association as the Central Missouri coach — most recently in 2011, a 81-79 Mavericks win.