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Jacqui Grant: Dovetailing     

Her face lights up with enough emotion to fill a basketball arena as she moves to the edge of her chair to tell the joke of why the banana went to the doctor. And it’s telling that the joke’s presentation, and one thing it references, are what Jacqui Grant and her personality revolve around: connecting with people.  

“For [DePaul’s] Secret Santa this year, I got a pun book, and I was so excited to get it; that is the type of person that I am,” Grant said in a recent interview. “And you can’t dislike someone like that. I like to have a relationship with everybody.”

But Grant, a 6-foot-3 senior who played at Maine South High School in Park Ridge and transferred to DePaul after her sophomore year at the University of Illinois, had time to connect mostly with herself at the start of last season as she waited for the NCAA to rule on her eligibility status.

“It's different when you have to sit out when you are not hurt. Mentally, I was really hoping I could play, but I was kind of preparing myself to not play. In practice I was still learning everything, so those games [that I sat out] gave me a little more time to learn the system.”

The NCAA ruled five games into the season that Grant and fellow Illinois transfer, sophomore Amarah Coleman, were eligible to play.

“That first game I was so nervous. I remember sitting there next to Amarah and I was shaking. And before every game I always turn to her. She does a really good job of calming me down. And before the Colgate game I was telling her to tell me something good. She always says to focus on rebounding or do something else, to relax and to play my game. Having someone with me in this process definitely helped me, and Amarah is a great person to do that with.

“On the first play when I had entered the game, Colgate was taking the ball out and Amarah was to my left. I was on the ball defending and I tipped the ball to Amarah, who then got the ball to me and I scored.”

Grant ended up scoring 14 points and grabbing five rebounds in the Colgate game. Her season improved from there, scoring 14 points against then-No. 3 Notre Dame; scoring 13 points versus then-No. 15 Texas A&M; and scoring 15 points against James Madison in the first round of the NCAA Championship and 15 again in DePaul’s Sweet 16 loss to Oregon State. Grant won DePaul’s Shirley Becker Academic Award and its Pat Ewers Unsung Hero Award last season.

How Grant became involved in basketball is no different from the stories of countless other players, but her father and mother’s basketball prowess and their degrees of separation to DePaul is.

“My whole family has a big basketball background. I think it is just part of the Grant name. I had the plastic hoop that you could play with a tiny plastic ball. I did that with my older brother and my younger brother.”  

A big basketball background that included a big father.  

Josh Grant is 6-foot-9 and played at the University of Utah, becoming the school’s third all-time leading scorer. He scored 29 points in the Utes’ 85-84 double overtime win over Michigan State in 1991 to send Utah to the Sweet 16. He was the 43rd overall pick in the 1993 NBA draft and ended up playing one year with the Golden State Warriors and then professionally in Europe for nine years.  

Her mom, then-Tina Conti, helped Niles West High Sschool win the 1979 Illinois girl’s basketball state title. The Indians finished the year 31-1, its only loss, in a moment of future irony for Conti, to Maine South. Niles West beat East St. Louis Lincoln and its future basketball star at UCLA, Jackie Joyner, 63-47 in the title game. Conti played at Niles West with Barb Atsaves, who went on to score 1,794 points at, in a moment of irony for the future Jacqui Grant, DePaul.

“I have gotten a lot of great traits from my parents. I got my height from my dad and somewhat of agility from my mom. And having those two mentally teach me about basketball had a huge impact on both basketball and life in general. One time I was in the car with my parents and we were [talking] about what to do if defenses collapse and me needing to see the floor well, and if I missed a few shots to not get down on myself.”

“DePaul is an elite program, and to just be able to come here and experience it is truly a blessing,” Grant said.

And part of that blessing has been helping others, evidenced by DePaul’s annual charity work, including singing Christmas carols for children at St. Vincent de Paul Center.   

Grant has a long relationship with charity.     

“In my freshman year at Maine South my family adopted a few families, and those families had Christmas lists with items like winter jackets, some toys, and just basic items. And the following year, my family adopted three families and our Maine South girl’s basketball team did the filling of the lists. We had four teammates per family and we went on a shopping spree at Target for these families."

And helping others includes teammates.  

“I like people to come to me. And as a senior, that is something that I made sure to bring with me [to DePaul] because in my freshman and sophomore years I definitely had some seniors who I could go to.”   

Grant was a four-year starter at Maine South, but her first year there was the usual freshman navigation of pitfalls and potholes.   

“My freshman year I was so scared and my sophomore year I got a little more confident in myself. [My sophomore year] was a great year, and I learned a lot about myself that year and how good I could be.”

“She got most of her baskets her freshman year on high-low looks, put backs, and in transition,” Maine South coach Mark Smith said in recent correspondence. “It wasn’t long before she started increasing her range, improving her repertoire of post moves, and utilizing her left hand on a regular basis.”  

The turning of the calendar page also turned Grant into a player who led her team downstate. And Barb Atsaves wasn’t the only relation to a school Grant had yet to attend. 

“We went downstate [my sophomore year] and lost to Zion in a bad game for us. I remember talking to the seniors about how this was our last game [against Whitney Young]. At the very end of the [third place game] against Whitney Young, we were only up by four points and I remember Chanise Jenkins took two dribbles around the volleyball ten-foot line, let it go with two people guarding her, and she made it like it was a lay up. And I was so nervous they were going to call a foul, but we still won.”

Jenkins is No. 1 all-time at DePaul in games played with 141 and No. 3 in career assists with 670. And that state tournament wasn’t the last time Grant and Jenkins would meet before Grant got to DePaul.   

“I remember coming to DePaul's Elite Camp and [DePaul coach Doug Bruno] was going through everybody and saying 'Megan Rogowski and Chanise Jenkins come on up here' and he introduces them as players from around here. He then said 'Chanise should have won the state title, and they got fourth place.' And I am just chuckling, hoping Chanise didn't recognize me, and she didn't. And then when I got to DePaul [last season] I kind of joked around and nudged her 'hey, do you remember that?' and she said she knew it was my team.”

Grant scored in double figures in 11 games last season, but learning about her new locale has been, as expected, an ongoing process.  

“Jacqui is still evolving into her comfort zone with her new environment,” Bruno said recently. “It is almost like junior college players in the sense that she is only going to be here for two years.”

Bruno, in his 31 years as head coach at DePaul, has been a great evaluator of talent and of what his players need to do to succeed. And his formula for success for Grant at DePaul has been a multifaceted one.  

“She knows what we are looking for: we need to have her post presence on offense, she has to rebound, and I want her to hit more shots and get more touches,” Bruno said. “At the same time I want her to get her percentage of shots higher in the paint and still take her three-pointers. We would like to get her 16-20 shots per game, with 25 percent of those from three-point range and 75 percent of them not.”

Grant scored a career-high 19 points in DePaul’s 108-84 upset of then-No. 11 Syracuse earlier this season. Her line was not something Bruno wrote down before the game, but it could have been: 8-16 from the field, including 3-5 from three-point range.    

Grant believes one of the differences between players from the Big 10 and players from the Big East is that the former are more physical and the latter are physical and fast. And one big difference for Grant has been where she did not go and where she has now been.

“After we beat Louisville [in round two of the NCAA Championship to advance to the Sweet 16], Amarah was one of the first people I went up to and we both felt that it was amazing. At Illinois we never made it past the first round of the conference tournament, so going to the Sweet 16, I never thought of that.”

And the nerves Grant had before the Colgate game were nothing compared to her first experience in NCAA Championship play.                 

“I remember playing James Madison [in round one of the NCAA Championship], and I turned to [fellow teammate Brooke Schulte] and I said 'I feel like I am going to throw up.' I was so nervous. She saw me getting nervous and told me that it was just a normal game and to just go play.”

Fifteen points and nine rebounds later, the KFC YUM! Center floor remained free of debris.  

Grant carries a 3.60 grade point average as a physical education and health endorsement major. Her goal upon graduation is to play professionally in Europe for at least one year and then to either be a college recruiting coach or a high school health and physical education teacher. And her reason for wanting to be a recruiting coach is one connects and continues:

“I love creating relationships with other people.”

And that the banana went to doctor because "it wasn’t peeling well” might be a good starting point.

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