When the Western Illinois women’s basketball team graduated two high-scoring seniors following the 2015-16 season, its future wasn’t clear.
Although three starters returned, the question remained as to who would step up to take the reins for the Leathernecks.
Junior point guard Emily Clemens was ready to provide an answer.
“I saw it as an opportunity to lead this team, and that is what I knew I had to do,” Clemens said. “We lost a lot of that leadership last year, definitely in the scoring category. I just wanted to take it upon myself to become that leader and realized that as an upperclassman it was my job to lead the younger girls.”
The 2014 Muscatine graduate's play on the court this season has backed that up, three times earning Summit League Player of the Week honors just 13 games into the season.
She leads the Leathernecks (10-3) in scoring at 19.8 points per game, while still distributing 93 assists (7.2 per game), the third most of any player in NCAA Division I. And despite holding the primary ball-handling duties for the Leathernecks, Clemens has posted an assist-to-turnover ratio of 2.38-1.
“I am proud of myself for what I have accomplished this year so far,” Clemens said. “The biggest thing for me, though, is to do the things my team needs me to do. Some games that is going to be scoring, some games it’s going to be dishing out the assists and getting aggressive on defense.”
That unselfishness is part of the reason that Clemens and the Leathernecks are off to their best start since the 2005-06 season.
“This group is extremely fun, it’s definitely a selfless group,” Clemens said. “I can honestly say when we step on the court everybody wants everybody to do well. There is no me-first attitude and everyone is always making that extra pass. That’s what makes it so fun.”
Added Western Illinois head coach J.D. Gravina, "That’s the biggest spot where you notice a player like Emily because she isn’t the type of kid who feels she has to make the big play at the end of the game, but isn’t afraid to make the play if needed. Generally, however, that big play will start with her."
Clemens, who has scored in double figures in all 13 games, has come up particularly clutch in the season's biggest moments so far.
She scored a career-high 34 points to help Western rally past Northern Illinois 83-79 on Nov. 19, only to then hit the game-winning free throws with three seconds left for the deciding margin in a 76-74 win at Southern Illinois-Edwardsville on Nov. 27.
It's a situation Clemens is not unfamiliar with. Among Muscatine's leaders in career points, assists and steals, Clemens has been able to rely on her experience with the Muskies and coach Susan Orvis this season.
“That was definitely something I learned from Susan,” Clemens said. “She talked a lot about poise, especially my freshman year of high school. Coming in you’re kind of blindsided when you try to play really fast even though everyone else is bigger and faster than you, but she always emphasized being poised and knowing when to slow the ball down.”
Her Leatherneck teammates know they can count on Clemens, no matter the situation.
"She is very in control at all times on the floor,” Western Illinois junior Mallory Boyle said. “Whenever we face a press, we always look to her because she can always break through it; or when she drives, she is always calm with the ball and knows what she is going to do with it.”
Clemens collected her 299th career assist, which put her ninth in Leathernecks program history, in an 80-55 win over Illinois State last Tuesday.
She recognizes that only happens because of her teammates.
“The assists numbers make me look good, but at the end of the day it’s one of the other girls knocking down the shot,” Clemens said. “You can’t achieve an assist without someone making that basket, and I have a lot of trust in my teammates to do so.”
Thus far, Clemens has played a high level in nearly every regard this season. She leads the team with 40 total steals, averages 3.9 rebounds per game and is shooting 52 percent on a 157 field-goal attempts, including hitting 42 percent of her 3-point tries.
Yet, it's not the tangible stats that stick out most to her coach.
“She never seems to be rattled,” Gravina said. “She will find the simple play by finding the open shots, driving the easiest lane to the hoop or making the easy pass, and that is what I love about her. I think the most impressive thing I have seen from her is her motor, probably the best of any kid I have ever coached. She is playing 40-plus minutes every game and just goes, goes and goes.”
Western has won 16 and 17 games, respectively, in Clemens' first two seasons in Macomb but has lost in the first round of the Summit League tournament each time.
As good as she and her teammates have started the season, Clemens is happy to continue building on that success step by step, beginning Wednesday in the Leathernecks' Summit opener at Fort Wayne.
“Getting into the conference tournament and getting a win would be great. It’s been a couple years since Western has done that, but I think this group if fully capable of making a run in that tournament,” Clemens said. “We are obviously going to take it day-by-day but at the same time I think that is an achievable goal that I really hope to see our team accomplish.”