La Lafayette Tennessee Basketball

Tennessee forward Kyle Alexander (11) works against Louisiana-Lafayette forward JaKeenan Gant, right, during the second half of an NCAA college basketball game Friday, Nov. 9, 2018, in Knoxville, Tenn. Tennessee won 87-65. (AP photo/Wade Payne) ORG XMIT: TNWP114

Even JaKeenan Gant was surprised that Southern’s Jaguars kept bringing the basketball inside.

“I thought they were going to start kicking it out,” Gant said after UL-Lafayette’s 88-78 win Saturday night. “But they kept getting down in the shot clock, and they had to try to drive the lane.”

Those drives were right into Gant’s wheelhouse, and the senior from Springfield, Georgia, kept rejecting those advances. By the time the game was over, Gant had a nation-leading 10 blocked shots and the Cajuns had their 15th straight nonconference home win and their 16th straight at home over an in-state opponent.

“I kept getting opportunities from the help side,” said Gant, whose squad will face another Louisiana foe Wednesday night when Loyola comes to the Cajundome for a 7 p.m. game. “Most times you go after a few to block, but you don’t get that many chances. When they kept coming, I just said to myself I was going to go after all of them.”

Gant had five blocks in each half on his way to the most rejections of any Division I player this season. Three players — LSU’s Kavell Bigby-Williams against Grambling, Wisconsin’s Nate Reuvers against Stanford and Western Illinois’ Brandon Gilbeck against Eastern Illinois — have nine blocks in a game.

“He just has great timing for someone who’s that long,” Cajuns coach Bob Marlin said of the 6-foot-8 Gant. “You think you can get it by him and you can’t. He’s done a great job of protecting the rim for us.”

Gant goes into Wednesday’s game averaging 3.13 blocked shots per game, good enough to rank ninth nationally. His 10 blocks Saturday were one short of the school record set in 2006 by Michael Southall at North Texas.

But Gant has done much more than just block shots for the Cajuns (4-3), whose only losses are to two teams ranked in the top six (Kansas at No. 2 and Tennessee at No. 6) and to a highly-regarded Toledo team in last week’s Gulf Coast Showcase Tournament.

He had 13 points in the second half against the Jaguars and finished with a 19-point, eight-rebound effort while hitting 8 of 13 shots. That came on the heels of the former Missouri signee earning co-player of the month honors by the Louisiana Sports Writers Association after averaging 17 points, 7.1 rebounds and 2.1 blocks per game in seven games.

Gant also enters the week as one of two players nationally, joining Brandon Clarke of top-ranked Gonzaga, to currently average 17 points, seven rebounds and three blocks per game, after his big block outing against the Jaguars.

“He had a big game against Southern,” Marlin said, “but he’s had several big games for us. The thing I liked the most was, he didn’t have any turnovers and overall did a nice job.”

Gant averaged 13.7 points, 5.8 rebounds and 2.4 blocked shots last year, after sitting out the 2016-17 season as a transfer. He played 53 games with 10 starts in two years at Missouri after being named Georgia’s “Mr. Basketball” as a prep senior.

He’s led the Sun Belt Conference in blocks over the past two seasons, helping him earn league Defensive Player of the Year and Newcomer of the Year honors last season. This year, though, he’s had to take on more of a leadership role with the graduation of four key seniors from a team that set a school record for wins (27).

“Last year we had a veteran group,” Gant said. “We played our position, we played smart and we had each other. We knew what was going to happen. With a younger group this year, it’s a different pace and new people have to get more involved. We’re still figuring out our roles and we have to do a little more offensively and defensively.”

While Marlin won’t complain about Gant blocking shots when chances come his way, he doesn’t want to count on that.

“Too many people have been getting into him,” Marlin said. “We’ve been pretty poor defensively on the perimeter, and we’ve got to do a better job there. We have made some strides defensively, but 10 blocks is too many. We have to do a better job of containing the ball and protecting our own yard.”

Gant had 19 points against both Tennessee and Kansas and entered the month among the Sun Belt leaders in scoring (9th), rebounding (7th) and field goal percentage (8th) to go with leading in blocked shots by a wide margin. Of those, there’s no question which is his favorite category.

“I enjoy blocking shots a lot,” he said “It gets the crowd riled up and gets teammates involved. But it gives our guards some comfort knowing I’m back there. I’ll tell them ‘I got you’ when someone’s trying to get past them.”