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From Wyandanch to Tennessee: Zakai Zeigler’s amazing hardwood journey

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Zakai Zeigler of Wyandanch leads Tennessee basketball in free throws made and free-throw percentage, is second on the team in steals and was an absolute sparkplug off the bench Tuesday night, playing big-time minutes in the Vols’ 76-63 win over No. 4 Kentucky in Knoxville.

Amazingly, just last July it seemed unlikely the true freshman would play college ball this year. Never mind serve as a catalyst in No. 16 Tennessee’s surge up the polls.

Heading into the Peach Jam — a late-July basketball event in Augusta, Georgia, that features the best high schoolers from across the country — the 5-foot-9 guard had only received scholarship offers from Bryant and St. Peter’s. Neither matched up with the kind of NCAA Division I programs he dreamed of playing for.

Zeigler‘s all-out, leave-everything-on-the-floor style was on full display in the tournament, and his play stood out from the pack. Six college offers poured in on July 23.

The Knoxville News Sentinel reported that when a Tennessee assistant coach pinged Zeigler on Instagram to express interest, Zeigler believed the note was delivered by a fake account.

Soon, Zeigler was talking on the phone with Tennessee‘s legendary coach Rick Barnes, and on Aug. 27 — just days before the first day of school — Zeigler committed to play in Knoxville.

The days, weeks and months since have been a magical ride for the young Long Island native, who in high school commuted four hours daily on Long Island Railroad and New Jersey Transit trains to attend class and play basketball for Immaculate Conception in Montclair, New Jersey.

Consider some of his highlights this season:

• Scored 14 points and had four steals and four assists off the bench in the Vols’ Feb. 15 win over rival Kentucky.
Playing with a stomach bug that caused him to vomit during the second half, he scored a season-high 18 points with three steals in the Vols’ 81-57 win over South Carolina on Feb. 5. He scored all of his points in the second half.
Named SEC Freshman of the Week on Feb. 7.
• Scored 14 points against Texas A&M on Feb. 1 in an effort that featured an ankle-breaking crossover that became the No. 2 Play of the Day on ESPN SportsCenter.
• Led Tennessee with 18 points in the Vols’ 89-72 win over North Carolina on Nov. 21. He also had five assists and no turnovers.

Zeigler’s play has made him a top candidate for the SEC Sixth Man of the Year award and it has helped elevate Tennessee (19-6) into contention for a high seed in the NCAA tournament that begins next month.

“My role on the team is to come off the bench and bring a lot of energy, and to change the game defensively, and just to give us that boost.” Zeigler, 19, said in an interview posted by Tennesse Athletics. “If I see we’re a little bit down. I can come off the bench and give us that boost. Maybe get a stop or two.”

Instant impact

Zakai Zeigler making an instant impact at Tennessee.

Tennessee’s next game is another conference matchup, on the road at No. 23 Arkansas on Saturday, Feb. 19, at 4 p.m. The game will be televised on ESPN.

Click below to watch highlights of Tennessee’s win on Tuesday over No. 4 Kentucky.

Zeigler’s 14 points against Kentucky boosted his season average to 8.7 points per game. He played 29 minutes, hitting two of his four, three-point field goal attempts and making all four of his free throws.

An outstanding free-throw shooter, Zeigler’s free-throw percentage now stands just under 86 percent.

Top photo: Tennessee guard Kennedy Chandler (1) laughs as he listens to guard Santiago Vescovi (25) talk to guard Zakai Zeigler (5) during the second half of an NCAA college basketball game against Kentucky Tuesday, Feb. 15, 2022, in Knoxville, Tenn. Tennessee won 76-63. (AP Photo/Wade Payne)