By Ryan Murken
Your Prep Sports
IOWA CITY – In the moments after last year’s state title game loss Steve Bergman didn’t make any motivational guarantee about his West High team returning to Wells Fargo Arena the next season to finish the job.
After watching his team go 4-of-18 from 3-point range and score a season-low 39 points in a seven-point loss to West Des Moines Valley in the 4A championship Bergman did make a prediction about this year’s West High team.
“I said it right away after the game that next year we will have more shooters,” Bergman said. “I figured we would shoot it better this year.”
The Trojans have already proven Bergman right, shooting 40 percent from 3-point range.
Thanks in part to its improved shooting top-ranked West High is on the verge of doing what what they came up just shy of doing last season, winning a state title.
West High (21-3) enters Friday’s Class 4A semifinal matchup with Cedar Rapids Kennedy (19-5) at 1:30 p.m. ranked in the top-10 in the state in 3-point percentage at 40 percent, an increase of nearly eight percent from last season.
“Our team last year was really athletic and long but it wasn’t as skilled as this team and teams tried to make us beat them from out there,” Bergman said of the 3-point shooting. “I think we’ve got a lot of guys that can shoots 3s and you see people have used that strategy (this year) but it’s been less and less as the year has gone on.”
Connor McCaffery is a four-year starter that has played more than 100 games in his career and has a father that is a long-time successful Division I head coach.
He didn’t need any of that to figure out what the defensive game plan for opponents was going to be this season.
“Teams don’t matchup with us well, I think I’m a tough matchup, Devontae (Lane) is a tough matchup and Patrick (McCaffery) is obviously a tough matchup so teams were going to have to zone us,” Connor McCaffery said. “Teams had some success doing that last year when we didn’t shoot it as well so we knew teams were going to try to replicate that against us.”
Connor McCaffery has been a big reason why playing zone against West High has gone from the go-to defense for opponents to a no-go this season.
The 6-foot-6 senior point guard is shooting a career-best 42 percent from 3-point range, up nearly five percentage points from last season.
Connor McCaffery has made a team-high 55 3-pointers this season through 24 games, nine more than he had all of last year.
“I think it’s just a lot of confidence with me,” Connor McCaffery said. “I worked on my shot a lot and I’ve gotten better and I think a lot of the other guys would say the same.”
The elder McCaffery is right, every returning player from West High has improved their 3-point shooting from last season.
Lane has gone from 31 percent to 38 percent from beyond the arc and made a career-high 20 triples.
“It’s having a lot of confidence in your shot and staying after practice and working on it,” Lane said. “I’m surrounded by a bunch of really great shooters so it hasn’t been in my game, it’s always been about passing and getting those guys open shots but I worked on it after last year and it’s improved.”
The 3-point improvement became personal for Lane following last season.
A nightmare problem in a man-to-man defense due to his strength and explosiveness, as last season wore on the scouting report on Lane became to give him the perimeter jump shot.
That strategy proved effective at times a year ago.
Lane worked hard during the offseason to make sure that strategy wasn’t a successful option this season.
“I think last year just kind of made me mad when teams would say you don’t have to guard him past 15 feet,” Lane said. “That’s disrespectful to me, so I just came in and worked on my shot and I have a lot of confidence and it’s really changed just in one year.”
Patrick McCaffery made the biggest jump among the West High returners going from 18 percent as a freshman to 34 percent this season.
The 6-foot-8 sophomore is one of five West High players with at least 18 3-pointers.
“I didn’t think Patrick would probably shoot 20 percent again,” Bergman said. “I thought last year going in Patrick was one of our better 3-point shooters and he shot 19 or 20 percent. Connor has gotten better every year and he has done that again. Devontae is shooting better this year than last year.”
The biggest key for the Trojans shooting uptick has been exactly what Bergman predicted, not just betting shooting but more shooters.
Evan Flitz, Izaya Ono-Fullard and Nate Disterhoft all stepped into bigger roles this season.
The trio has combined to make 55 3-pointers this season and is shooting 44 percent from 3-point range.
“All of our role guys can shoot,” McCaffery said. “Evan is a really good shooter, Izaya is a really good shooter, Nate is a good shooter and just down the line we have a lot of good shooters.”
Flitz leads that list going 25-of-51 from beyond the arc.
Ono-Fullard has 21 triples and is shooting 39 percent from 3-point range and made two in West High’s quarterfinal win over Newton.
West High was a combined 10-of-35 from 3 at the state tournament last season and didn’t make more than four in any game.
“Even if some of our shooters aren’t making shots we continue to tell them to keep shooting the ball if they are open,” Lane said. “You can’t let a team take you out of the game because you are missing shots.”
The 40 percent for West High this season is the most efficient 3-point shooting since the Trojans shot 42 percent on their way to a state title in 2012.
That 2012 squad made 160 3-pointers in a 26-0 season. This year’s team has already made 168 triples.
“We just have so many better shooters this year it’s harder for teams to guard us,” Connor McCaffery said. “When everybody is shooting and you have to worry about every spot on the floor it just makes it a lot tougher.”