Notebook: There's no halfway for Notre Dame's Jessica Shepard

Anthony Anderson
Tribune Correspondent

SOUTH BEND — Jessica Shepard’s gone from a program that nearly never won in conference play last year to one that’s nearly never lost in conference play over the last six years.

“It’s something I definitely don’t take for granted,” the Notre Dame junior standout said Saturday after practice as the Irish prepared for Sunday’s 1 p.m. Atlantic Coast Conference basketball game at Wake Forest.

“But I also think every time you get an opportunity to play, no matter what the situation, it’s a blessing” Shepard added, “So every game, I’m making sure I’m focused on that game and doing everything I can in that game.”

That mindset might at least partially explain why Shepard has been able to not only play, but excel, in Notre Dame’s last two games — those outings each coming after she was described as “questionable” by coach Muffet McGraw.

“She’s got a lot of mental toughness and really wants to play,” McGraw said Saturday of Shepard. “I think she’s really working hard to get herself ready for games.”

For Sunday’s contest, McGraw described Shepard as “probable.”

“It’s been a lot of rehab, but I’m feeling good,” said Shepard whose last two contests came three days and two days, respectively, after suffering sprained right ankles. “For sure I’m feeling better than I have been.”

Over her last three games for the No. 2-rated Irish (12-1, 1-0), Shepard has averaged 25.3 points and 11.7 rebounds. Along the way, she became the first ND women’s player to notch three straight double-doubles since Natalie Achonwa did so during the 2013 NCAA Tournament.

Shepard started the streak with her Purcell Pavilion-record 39 points and 11 rebounds in a Dec. 17 win over DePaul. The 6-foot-4 forward suffered her first sprain near the end of that game.

Three days later, she added 13 points and 12 boards in the victory over Marquette.

Then on Thursday, two days after spraining her ankle in practice, she racked up 24 points and 12 rebounds in the ACC-opening win over Syracuse.

“I’m getting a lot more comfortable with the offense and just the girls I’m playing with,” Shepard said. “They do a great job getting the ball inside. The coaches have kind of put an emphasis on it, and everybody’s making good passes.”

A year ago, Shepard was starring at Nebraska. She averaged 18.5 points and 9.8 rebounds, but the Cornhuskers as a team went just 7-22, including 3-13 in the Big Ten.

Contrast that to Notre Dame, which has gone 219-16 overall and 95-3 in league play over the last six years.

“I think we know we’re going to get every team’s best shot,” Shepard said, “and I think we know in practice, we can’t take a day off.”

On a more literal side, Shepard’s injuries have forced her to take at least a couple off.

“She’s not fine, she’s still hurting, so we’re trying to give her as much rest as we can,” McGraw said after Shepard watched for part of Saturday’s workout.

Come game time, though, forget about anything partial.

“If you’re going to be out there,” Shepard said in response to a question about how hard she appeared to push herself in her last game, “you can’t be out there and play halfway. I’m out there to go hard.”

Into the Forest

After starting the season 2-5, Wake Forest has won six straight to stand 8-5 heading into its ACC opener.

“Their best player was out (the first six games),” McGraw said Saturday of preseason all-league pick Elisa Penna, a 6-3 junior from Italy. “They’ve gotten a lot tougher since she’s back. She’s a really tough matchup because she can move around inside and out.”

Penna is averaging a team-leading 12.9 points, but is just 31-of-87 from the field, including 8-of-25 on 3-pointers.

“They’ve got a really solid starting lineup and a good freshman (Gina Conti) coming off the bench,” McGraw said, “so they’ll be tough, especially at home.”

The Demon Deacons are 5-1 at the Lawrence Joel Veterans Memorial Coliseum, but have not played a ranked team yet.

ACL updates

Notre Dame freshman Mikayla Vaughn’s surgery Friday on her torn anterior cruciate ligament “went very well,” McGraw said.

“All three are doing well,” the coach added of Vaughn, Brianna Turner and Mychal Johnson, who have each suffered ACL injuries at various times since last March and are in varying stages of recovery.

Turner, an All-American who was injured in an NCAA Tourney game last March, announced in the fall that she would sit out this winter and play a final season in 2018-19 for the Irish.

“I don’t have any timetables, but I’m anxious for Bri to get her brace,” McGraw said. “Once she does, she can start doing some drills and things, but not full practices. … It’s maybe a couple weeks (away), but I don’t know.”

The coach said Johnson, a senior who was injured just before this season started, has not decided on whether she’ll return next year for a final season of eligibility.

“She’s still thinking about it,” McGraw said. “I want her to come back, but it’s a question of what’s best for her and her future. It’s something for her to consider, but we don’t have a lot of one-year (graduate) programs.”

Vaughn played just six games this season before tearing an ACL in practice and thus has four seasons of eligibility remaining.

WOMEN’S BASKETBALL

WHO: No. 2 Notre Dame (12-1) vs. Wake Forest (8-5).

WHERE: Joel Veterans Memorial Coliseum (14,665), Winston-Salem, N.C.

WHEN: Sunday, 1 p.m.

RADIO: Pulse (96.9 / 92.1 FM).

WEB: ACC Network Extra.

TV: None.

NOTING: Wake Forest has won six straight since starting 2-5. The Demon Deacons have not faced a ranked team. They’re 6-1 since the Nov. 30 return of preseason All-ACC pick Elisa Penna. The 6-3 junior is averaging a team-leading 12.9 points. Amber Campbell (5-9 senior) is at 11.5 points and 2.4 steals; Tyra Whitehead (6-3 sophomore) 9.5 points and 6.2 rebounds; Alex Sharp (6-1 sophomore) 9.8 points, 7.8 rebounds and 3.8 assists; and Ariel Stephenson (5-10 junior) 8.8 points. … Notre Dame leaders include Arike Ogunbowale (20.2 points per game), Jessica Shepard (15.8 points, 8.8 rebounds), Jackie Young (14.0 points, 7.6 rebounds) and Marina Mabrey (11.8 points, 3.2 assists). Over her last four games, Kathryn Westbeld is at 11.8 points, 5.8 rebounds and 2.5 assists. … The Irish have won all five meetings against Wake Forest, including a 2-0 mark at Winston-Salem, N.C.

QUOTING: “I’d love to see us in a game where we put 40 minutes together at the defensive end. (I’m) just really frustrated with our inability to defend. We can’t contain the ball, our rotation’s bad, we’re giving up 3s. We’ve got to find some answers and just continue to work hard at it.” — Muffet McGraw, Notre Dame coach, after the team’s 87-72 win Thursday over Syracuse.

Syracuse's Tiana Mangakahia (4) gets pressure from Notre Dame's Jessica Shepard (23) during ND's 87-72 victory over Syracuse, Thursday at Purcell Pavilion. (Tribune Photo/ROBERT FRANKLIN)