The Jefferson City Jays didn't enter the season with much varsity experience.
Four games in, many Jays are learning the transition from the lower levels.
"There's a huge difference between JV and varsity," Jefferson City coach Tony Phillips said Friday following a 55-42 loss to the Fort Zumwalt South Bulldogs at Fleming Fieldhouse. " It's just so much faster."
An early 3-pointer from Keith Driver and layup for Kevion Pendelton put the Jays ahead 6-2.
But the Bulldogs were aggressive on the ball defensively and used their athletic and ball-handling skills to get past the Jays' full-court defense to take control of the first half.
Following a Jay Higgins steal, the 6-foot-6 Connor Bekebrede slipped in a layup for the third and final lead change of the game at the 4:02 mark of the first quarter.
That 8-6 advantage grew to 15-8 before 6-4 forward Parker Gourley got a tip-in for the final points of the opening eight minutes.
A Sterling DeSha tip-in early in the second quarter got the Jays within 17-14 before the Bulldogs scored the next six points in a nearly four-minute span.
Higgins finished off the first-half scoring with a layup in the final seconds as Fort Zumwalt South took a 31-20 lead at halftime.
"We've just gotta stay positive," Phillips said.
Jefferson City didn't let Fort Zumwalt South run away with it as the Jays' on-ball defense kept the Bulldogs from getting easy drives to the basket.
Michael Onunkwor cut the deficit to 32-24 midway through the third quarter with a bucket and DeSha added a layup with 2:09 remaining to make the score 34-26.
"It was just effort," Phillips said. "We played with more effort."
A second-chance layup for Eli Edmonds in the final second of the third quarter put the Bulldogs back up by double digits at 39-29.
The Bulldogs got back on track to start the fourth quarter, leading 45-31 with 5:33 remaining.
Jefferson City tried to rally as DeSha converted a steal into free throws to make it 47-39 with 1:36 remaining.
But the Jays' next points didn't come until a Koby Sands layup as the clock went under 10 seconds.
DeSha led the Jays in points with 18 and rebounds with eight, while Pendelton scored eight points.
"I thought Kevion did a great job tonight in his first start," Phillips said. "He just brings a toughness."
Higgins was the leading scorer and rebounder for the Bulldogs with 18 points and eight boards.
Jefferson City (1-3) will host Greenwood today at Fleming Fieldhouse. The JV game will start at 1 p.m. with the varsity contest to follow around 2:30 p.m.
The Blue Jays are led by 5-star recruit Aminu Mohammed.
"For us, it's just to get better and play as hard as we can play," Phillips said.
In Friday's JV game, the Jays won 55-29.
Steven Samuels scored 31 points and Tripp Maassen added 11 points for the Jays.