Jays to play another tough early season game tonight

Jefferson City coach Blair Thompson likes the direction his team is heading.

And his expectations have continued to grow since the Jays kicked off their season Dec. 5.

“I’m excited about the way we’ve been playing as a whole and I think we’ll keep getting better,” Thompson said. “Our ball movement has been really good, we’re getting down and defending and we’re playing together. This early stretch has gone just about as good as I could have hoped for.”

The Jays are off to a 4-3 start, but have suffered two losses to Hickman, the No. 1-ranked team in Class 5 according to the Missouri Basketball Coaches Association/MOsports.com poll.

Jefferson City also fell to Liberty North, a team that is receiving votes in the Class 4 rankings.

“Of our three loses, two of those are to the No. 1 team in the state and to one of our biggest rivals,” Thompson said. “We feel like in both of those games that we had chances to win if we would have played better.”

Jefferson City’s schedule doesn’t get any easier over the next few days.

The Jays will be put to the test again when they face Oxford (Miss.) at 8:30 p.m. today in the opening round of the Joe Machens Great 8 Classic at Fleming Fieldhouse.

“They’ll probably be the most athletic team we’ve played, and that’s quite a feat given the fact we’ve played Hickman twice already,” Thompson said. “They’re athletic from top to bottom, they’ve got some size and they’ve got some pretty quick guards.”

Oxford (8-1) averages 65.6 points per contest, but Thompson said winning the rebounding battle will the most important aspect of the game for the Jays, who finished sixth at the event last year.

“We’re not the biggest team by any stretch, but we’ve got to be the scrappiest and we’ve got to play the hardest,” Thompson said. “We’ve got to establish the boards early, we have to be able to keep their guards in front of us, and we have to get out and take advantage of any opportunities we get in transition. We’ve got to get back and defend in transition just the same.”

Jefferson City will lean on junior forward O.G. Anunoby, who averages a team-leading 22 points and 12 rebounds, to provide most of the scoring. Harold Robertson Jr. (12 ppg) and Jake White (11 ppg) round out the top end of the Jays’ offensive production, while Lucas Theroff and Darion Jones are also expected to add to the attack.

“I think every player we run out there has the potential to step up in a given night. Everybody has a role,” Thompson said. “We’ve had some good leadership from the top and they’re helping our young guys come along. We’re getting some good contributions from a lot of different places.”

Isaac Rolling, Seth Stegeman, Tim Nahach, and Zach Brooks all create options off the bench for the Jays, who have picked up wins against Sedalia Smith-Cotton, Blue Springs, Truman, and Washington so far this season.

“We bring guys off the bench that have been doing well and keeping it going for us,” Thompson said. “We’re happy with what we’re getting from the guys we’ve been putting out there.”

A victory today would put Jefferson City in a winner’s bracket semifinal game at 7 p.m. Saturday against the winner of Helias and Louisville (Ky.) Western. A loss would match the Jays up with the loser of that game at 4 p.m.

“Obviously, there’s no game more important than the first round,” Thompson said. “We know we have a good opponent and Oxford is going to be extremely athletic and they’ll give us some problems if we’re not ready to play.”

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