WILTON, Iowa − West Branch opted to not guard Emily Lange out to the 3-point line, and that came as no surprise to the Wilton junior. She averaged 12.1 points per game as a sophomore but only made four of her 24 attempts from beyond the arc.
But Lange spent the entire offseason reworking her jump shot, and thanks to a newfound confidence and better release point, she made West Branch pay dearly for daring her to shoot. The junior scored 29 points and made 6 of 10 3-pointers to lead the Beavers to a thrilling 76-74 win last week.
"I've been working on my shot, so I've been pretty excited to get the season started," Lange said. "They weren't really guarding me on the 3-point line, and they didn't think that was going to come from me. My teammates were giving me great passes and I was just there."
Perhaps most importantly, it was evident Lange's confidence grew with every make, something she admitted she's lacked in the past.
"She hit her first couple of shots and you could see the confidence beam out of her," Wilton coach Jeremy Putman said. "She wanted the ball from there on out. Our girls were looking for her too because she was hitting shots."
Lange has taken her game up a notch offensively through the first five games of her junior season. She's Wilton's leading scorer and the River Valley Conference's second-leading scorer at 16.2 points per game. In addition to her 29-point explosion, she's reached double figures in four of the Beavers' first five games. She's also tied for fourth in the conference with eight 3-pointers made, and Putman believes that has made her much tougher to guard this season.
"In the past she's always been able to dominate in the post," Putman said. "But she wants to play college basketball and she knows she has to have a perimeter game. Now girls have to close out on her and she can blow by them."
Lange's improved jump shot has done more than just help her. Putman believes it's opened up the floor for the rest of her teammates on offense. Junior Aubrey Putman has more room in the post to operate and is taking advantage by averaging 14.8 points and 11 rebounds per game, while junior Kortney Drake is scoring 14.6 points per game.
The Beavers are shooting 41 percent from the field and 30.4 percent from 3, which coach Putman said is "way up" from where their percentages have been the past few seasons. They're currently off to a 4-1 start, which is something they haven't accomplished through their first five games in the past decade.
Although coach Putman loves the team basketball he's seen so far, perhaps the biggest reason for the hot start is advice Lange received in the summer.
"I struggle with my attitude, so I'm trying to keep a positive mind," Lange said. "One of my coaches told me if I miss to pretend like it went in and that'll go a long ways.”
Although shooting is the most obvious area Lange has improved from last year, Putman believes she's come a long way defensively, especially off the ball. That's helped launch the Wilton fast break, which is the driving force behind the second best offense in the River Valley Conference at 63.6 points per game.
"Our fast break is really what gets us going," Lange said. "Just getting the ball out quick and hitting our posts down the middle seems to work for us."
Putman, however, still sees plenty of room for Lange and the Beavers to grow this season. Both he and Lange agree that the team needs to work on defensive rebounding and not allowing second-chance points. Also, Lange is only shooting 32.8 percent from inside the arc this season despite getting plenty of good looks in the post.
Even with her hot start, Putman believes she will continue to improve once those inside shots start to fall.
"She's getting good shots and not finishing," Putman said. "She's going up strong, but it's just not falling for her right now. But she's getting the shots, that's the important thing.
"I see her improving on that scoring average as the season goes on."