Nebraska transfer Jessica Shepard orders up a new start at Notre Dame

Eric Hansen
South Bend Tribune

Jessica Shepard looked over her takeout food order Thursday night and decided settling for something she didn’t order wasn’t going to cut it.

It’s not too much different than her mind-set when it came to a curdled hoops dream. And because of the latter, the Notre Dame women’s basketball team just got bigger — and likely better as well.

Nebraska 6-foot-4 sophomore center Jessica Shepard announced Thursday that she is transferring to Notre Dame and hopes to enroll in summer school at ND later this month. The news was first reported by the Lincoln Journal Star and Omaha World-Herald.

Per NCAA transfer rules, she’ll have to sit out the 2017-18 season after which Shepard will have two seasons of eligibility. Shepard said she visited two other schools after deciding in late March to leave Nebraska — Missouri and national champion South Carolina.

“I think the biggest reason why Notre Dame was the right choice is the coaching staff and the players,” Shepard told the Tribune in a phone interview Thursday night. “Their staff’s ability to develop players, to get them ready for the next level and compete at this level, it’s not really comparable to any other coaching staff.

“I want to play for championships. And I want to get pushed every day in practice to get the development I need to get to the next level (WNBA).”

She certainly has the pedigree.

Coming out of Fremont (Neb.) High School in the 2015 class, Shepard was the No. 3 prospect nationally regardless of position and the top post player. She then was the USBWA national Freshman of the Year in 2015-16 for a WNIT-qualifying Husker squad after averaging 18.5 points and 8.6 rebounds.

Last season, with a new head coach (Amy Williams), she posted similar numbers (18.6, 9.8), but was a second-team All-Big Ten selection as the Huskers finished with the worst record in school history, 7-22.

Just two years prior, they were playing in their fourth NCAA Tournament in succession. Shepard, who lived in Lincoln for five years, committed to the Huskers as an eighth-grader.

“Ultimately what it came down to, at the end of the day what I want to accomplish in college and the opportunities I wanted to have after college I didn’t feel I was on the right track,” she said.

“One of my friends said, ‘Sometimes you have to do what’s scary to grow.’ When she said that, I thought, ‘Yeah I need to do what’s scary rather than what I’m comfortable with.’

“The scary part wasn’t Notre Dame. The scary part was deciding if I was leaving Nebraska or not. Obviously, I grew up here. I have family here, friends here. I’m comfortable. Sometimes you have to venture out a little bit to see what’s out there.”

There is some familiarity, though, with the Irish. Shepard was a teammate of and a fellow gold medalist with Irish All-America center Brianna Turner and guard Michaela Mabry on the USA Under-18 team in the summer of 2014.

Turner and Shepard have been close ever since.

“We used to talk about what it would be like to play together in college before either of us got there,” Shepard said. “And we never lost touch. It will be great practicing against her every day.”

When that will happen for the first time is still a little murky. Turner suffered a torn ACL in March during the NCAA Tournament and underwent surgery.

“I tore my ACL my senior year in high school, so I know what she’s going through,” Shepard said. “I think it will be nice just to have somebody there that knows what you’re going through, ’cause it can get hard.”

Should senior-to-be Turner return from knee surgery to play this upcoming season instead of redshirting, Shepard will move to the active roster right when the Irish need an infusion of size.

Beyond Turner, among the big bodies who will exhaust their eligibility in the coming season are 6-4 reserve Kristina Nelson and 6-2 starter Kathryn Westbeld.

The Irish have 6-3 center Mikayla Vaughn and 6-2 forward Danielle Patterson in the incoming freshman class. Danielle Cosgrove, a 6-3 post player, arrives in 2018-19, along with guards Katlyn Gilbert, Jenna Brown and Abby Prohaska.

“The only thing standing in my way of moving there right now is a bunch of paperwork,” Shepard said. “I may have to take some classes at Nebraska and Notre Dame in the summer, but hopefully I can just do it all in South Bend.

“I like wakeboarding, and I’m not sure there will be someplace there for me to do that there,” she added. “But I plan to be very busy with my basketball anyway, and busy trying to get better and trying to help my new team get better.”

Nebraska's Jessica Shepard (32) announced Thursday that she is transferring to Notre Dame. (Photo courtesy of Omaha World-Herald/JAKE CRANDALL)