LINCOLN — Jessica Shepard watched the women’s Final Four as a girl and imagined herself on the stage. For her, it wasn’t a pipe dream — she had the size and talent to play college basketball at the highest level, anywhere she pleased.
Sunday night, as the Fremont graduate jumped and laughed with her national title-winning Notre Dame teammates, Shepard checked a big item off her bucket list. She finished with 19 points in the Fighting Irish’s 61-58 win over Mississippi State and was the No. 1 option on Notre Dame’s final play. When Shepard — a 6-foot-4 post — was double-teamed, she knew the rest of her teammates were basically one-on-one to score.
The Irish’s best player, Arike Ogunbowale, called for the ball. She caught it near midcourt, dribbled to the corner and shot an off-balance, high-arcing 3-pointer so pure the ball barely moved the net.
Shepard was the first person to reach Ogunbowale, who leapt into Shepard’s arms.
“It’s kind of surreal,” Shepard said Monday morning from Notre Dame’s team bus. “It hasn’t really hit me we’re national champions. Last night we were all reminding each other, ‘Hey, we’re national champions.’ ”
It capped a whirlwind year for Shepard, who announced her transfer from Nebraska in late March 2017. The former five-star recruit scored a combined 1,112 points over her freshman and sophomore seasons at NU, twice being named All-Big Ten. But the Huskers missed the NCAA tournament both years, went through a tumultuous change in coaches — from Connie Yori to Amy Williams — and posted the worst record in school history last season.
So Shepard left and picked the Fighting Irish, who have made six of the past eight Final Fours. Shepard knew some of the players from her time on the AAU and USA national team circuit.
“It’s been really exciting, to get adapted here so quick and be with a great group of girls who really opened their arms to me,” Shepard said. “I was blessed with the opportunity.”
Shepard didn’t miss a beat at Notre Dame, averaging 15.6 points, 8.1 rebounds and 2.4 assists. As Notre Dame lost several players to season-ending knee injuries, coach Muffet McGraw whittled her rotation down to seven women. It created a good chemistry. Shepard wasn’t asked to carry the Fighting Irish — that was Ogunbowale’s job, if anyone’s — and the team had four players averaging more than 14 points.
“Every time we lost somebody, it wasn’t what we lost, it’s what we still had,” Shepard said. “We felt like we had a seven-player rotation that could go win the national championship.”
That it did. But Notre Dame had to slay rival and perennial women’s basketball power Connecticut to do it. Their Final Four game — as exciting as the title matchup — was a thriller, a 91-89 overtime win for Notre Dame that ended on an Ogunbowale jumper.
It was the fourth time in Shepard’s career she’d faced UConn. The Huskers lost by 42 and 43 points to the Huskies in Shepard’s freshman and sophomore seasons, and the Irish lost to UConn 80-71 in December.
“It’s the best rivalry in women’s college basketball,” Shepard said. “To be playing them in the Final Four, it’s your dream, two No. 1 seeds in the Final Four, and have it be Notre Dame and UConn. Special game.”
During the Final Four weekend, reporters asked Shepard and McGraw about the circumstances involved in the NCAA’s rare approval of an immediate eligibility waiver that allowed Shepard to play this season at Notre Dame. The NCAA made its decision on Nov. 1, just days before ND’s season opener.
“Every game we have a toast to the state of Nebraska and Jessica Shepard for being with us because we wouldn’t be here without her,” McGraw said after the UConn game.
In transferring from Nebraska, Shepard wasn’t moving closer to home, but farther away from it. Her departure was one year removed from Yori’s resignation, so her transfer couldn’t easily be tied to the coaching change. So how did she get the waiver?
The NCAA doesn’t have to say what claims are made in the waiver, though it’s clear Nebraska supported Shepard’s petition. Without Shepard, Nebraska drastically improved — winning 14 more games and making the NCAA tournament. In an interview last month, Williams said the program “cared about Shepard as a person” and “wishes her well.”
So what does Shepard say? The same as she did during Final Four weekend.
“It was just different personal reasons,” Shepard said. “A bunch of different things here and there.”
Asked if her waiver had anything to do with how Husker fans treated her, Shepard said “no comment.”
“It was personal,” she reiterated.
Shepard praised the culture set by McGraw, who won her second national title Sunday night. McGraw has taken ND to eight Final Fours and 23 straight NCAA tournaments.
“The expectations are probably higher here than they were at Nebraska,” Shepard said. “You’re just held to a different standard. It’s just excellence. Every day we come into practice and you do it until you get it right. And you’re expected to go 100 percent every drill, every possession. The coaches are here to get more out of you than you think you can get out of yourself.”
Notre Dame earned an unexpected crown on a big stage. And Shepard, who hit 8 of 10 shots, was the catalyst. The Fighting Irish trailed by as many as 15 points, and Ogunbowale missed 15 of 21 shots. Shepard’s play at the rim dragged Notre Dame across the finish line.
The girl who played against boys in Omaha youth league basketball, who delivered a Class A state title as a sophomore at Lincoln Southeast, who was national player of the week as a true freshman at Nebraska, won the national title. Plenty of Nebraska girls who play college volleyball have experienced that. Shepard did it in basketball.
“It’s something special you’ll remember forever,” Shepard said.