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story.lead_photo.caption Players warm up Nov. 23, 2021, at Fleming Fieldhouse for the Jefferson City Jays' basketball season opener against Smith-Cotton. Photo by Anderson Kimball/News Tribune

Jefferson City made easy work of its season opener thanks to some hounding defense.

The Jays forced 28 turnovers while giving up just seven baskets in a 69-29 win Tuesday night against Sedalia Smith-Cotton at Fleming Fieldhouse.

"It's going to go as our defense goes," Jefferson City coach Josh Buffington said. "Our guys get hyped. They like playing fast. They did a great job tonight of converting turnovers into points. They responded extremely well."

A slow start offensively against the Tigers matchup zone forced the Jays to turn to their full-court press to push the pace.

"They came out and something unexpected this early in the season," Buffington said. "The decision came because of what they came out in defensively. We thought we needed to speed it up because we weren't quite ready to attack their defensive strategy this early in the season."

The Jays had a three-point lead after the first quarter before forward Michael Onunkwo ignited the team with a steal and slam in the middle of the second as the pressure the Jays wanted to start the game with started to pick up. After the first quarter, Smith-Cotton made three field goals with 11 of its 17 points in the final three periods coming from the free-throw line.

"First game of the year — kids can say what they want — there are jitters," Buffington said. "I think that goes the same with coaches. When we were able to get out and create a few easy ones and create some separation, I think the confidence came up and we said, 'All right. We're ready.'"

The Smith-Cotton 1-3-1 zone forced Jefferson City into a lot of outside shots offensively, but Steven Samuels and Kevion Pendelton were able to take advantage of those open looks. Pendelton got the scoring started with a 3 from the wing and finished with 15 while Samuels had a game-high 18.

The duo of senior guards shot 7-for-14 from 3 from a lot of swing-passes and kick-outs in the half-court offense to combine with fast-break opportunities.

"Everything runs through those two at the guard position for the most part," Buffington said. "They have the experience. They definitely have the talent. We go as they go. They set the tone defense and they also set the tone offensively."

Onunkwo acted as a facilitator in the post for most of the night with two dunks in transition. He finished with six points, four rebounds, and five assists.

"He's just so long," Buffington said. "Michael's at his best when he's playing free. Defensively, we were able to get him out, get him on the point of it, and just use this length. A couple dunks later the energy goes up for everybody in the building."

Against a packed-in defense, the Jays had 23 of their 49 shots come from behind the arc. They shot 8-for-23 (34.8 percent) from 3 and 25-for-49 (51 percent) from the floor, with most of those 2-point shots coming on transition layups or putbacks.

The Jays had a number of different contributors, with freshman guard Exavier Wilson getting the start and finishing with six points. He got out in transition and had good ball pressure on defense.

"It's a freshman playing varsity basketball at a big school and so obviously he's nervous," Buffington said. "But he's a confident kid. He's a smart basketball player. and I thought he did a great job and played an excellent floor game for us tonight."

Cole Heller had six points and a team-high five rebounds off the bench while crashing the offensive glass, and Imran Den-Gabisi had five points off the bench in the fourth quarter.

Jefferson City won the JV game 78-28. Judah Harris had 32 points while Den-Gabisi added 15.

Jefferson City is back in action against William Chrisman at 6:30 p.m., Thursday, Dec. 2 in the Phog Allen Tournament at William Chrisman in Kansas City.

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