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UL-Lafayette's JaKeenan Gant goes up for two of his career-high 24 points against Troy on Jan. 27 at the Cajundome in Lafayette.

Advocate file photo by Brad Bowie

UL-Lafayette basketball fans knew JaKeenan Gant was special more than a year before he took the court in a Ragin' Cajuns uniform.

It was late October 2016 when the Cajuns held a public Red-White scrimmage at Blackham Coliseum.

Because it was an intrasquad scrimmage, three transfer players who were not eligible for last season — Gant, Marcus Stroman and Malik Marquetti — could participate.

And participate they did.

Those three players and some reserves put on a show that night, leading their Red team to a 93-89 win over a White squad that included most of UL-Lafayette’s returning players.

Marquetti hit the eventual game-winners in that scrimmage, but it was Gant that wowed the crowd with a succession of athletic plays on the way to a 19-point, 10-rebound, four-block performance.

Not long after, one Sun Belt Conference assistant coach said that the 6-foot-8 Springfield, Georgia, native and Missouri transfer would be the league’s most athletic player when he became eligible this season.

“He definitely brings things to our team we didn’t have last year,” Cajuns coach Bob Marlin said. “His athleticism, the way he can run the floor, how he blocks shots — he definitely can fill up the highlight reels.”

It was hard for Marlin not to look ahead to this season, even as last year’s squad finished with 21 wins. He and the Cajuns fan base knew all but one key player from last year’s squad was back this season to join forces with the transfer trio.

The only question was early-season chemistry — and since the start of Sun Belt play, the Cajuns have found a formula that has delivered a 19-3 record, a perfect 9-0 mark halfway through conference play and a record run that the Cajuns take into their game at UL-Monroe at 2 p.m. Saturday.

“People were talking about chemistry,” Gant said after UL-Lafayette’s 75-61 Saturday win over Troy. “All I know is, we’re playing together right now. We have a good feel for each other and we’re having fun. There’s a lot of very unselfish guys on this team.”

Gant had his share of fun in that Troy game, hitting 7 of 8 shots including three straight 3-pointers in the first half, when he had 19 of his game- and career-high 24 points. That early burst gave the Cajuns a 40-36 halftime lead, and his teammates joined in the second half to finish with a ninth straight double-digit win in Sun Belt play.

That was Gant’s second game without wearing a splint on his shooting hand. An injury in practice forced him to miss UL-Lafayette’s first two conference home games. His numbers dipped in the next three games, but the junior averaged 20 points, 6.5 rebounds and two blocks per game in last week’s home wins over South Alabama and Troy.

“He had a setback with his hand,” Marlin said, “but that’s continuing to heal and he doesn’t wear the splint when he plays. He can make the athletic play, but I like the way he’s shooting the ball with confidence. Sometimes when you’re injured, you have to focus on fundamentals and technique, and he’s shot really well since he’s been back.”

Gant leads the Sun Belt in field-goal percentage (.608), and in his last two games, he’s a combined 15-of-23 from the field and 6-of-11 outside the arc.

“I felt a lot more comfortable playing,” Gant said. “The last few games I was overthinking, and I had to stop thinking about what I was doing and play with confidence and not think about my hand. I just blank it out because it doesn’t hurt.”

Gant had nine points and eight rebounds in his debut in a season-opening loss at Ole Miss, and then reeled off 11 straight double-digit games.

In one stretch against four in-state opponents, he had four straight 20-point games and averaged 21.5 points and 8.3 rebounds, and he opened Sun Belt play with a 20-point, 10-rebound effort at Little Rock.

“He was the 52nd-rated player in the country coming out of high school,” Marlin said. “We need him to rebound better and defend on the perimeter and we need him to drive the ball a little more. But I knew he could come in and play well in this league.

“People still ask about the transfer guys. Those guys play for us now. They’ve been with us for a year and a half, and we wouldn’t have brought them in if we had worries. If they weren’t quality players and quality people, they wouldn’t be here.”