Notebook: Notre Dame's Jessica Shepard embraces first NCAA Tournament trip

Anthony Anderson and Tom Noie
South Bend Tribune

COLUMBUS, Ohio – During her first two years of college basketball at Nebraska, Irish forward Jessica Shepard never experienced all that the NCAA tournament entails, let alone playing in a Final Four.

The Cornhuskers won a combined 25 games in Shepard’s first two seasons. Now finishing her first year at Notre Dame, Shepard helped the Irish win four games and get to the Final Four for the first time since 2015.

Spoiled? Absolutely, but she’ll take it.

“This has been unbelievable,” she said. “It’s a blessing to be here in this situation. It speaks volumes on this program and these coaches and what they’ve built here.”

Shepard’s also been a key reason because, well, she’s been pretty good. Heading into Final Four play, she was averaging 15.6 points, a team-high 8.1 rebounds and shooting 56.1percent from the field in 28.7 minutes.

Back in December, Shepard got her first taste of the Connecticut rivalry. She scored 10 points and had eight rebounds in 36 minutes in the nine-point loss. She learned then that it’s just not another game on the schedule.

“It’s competitive; it’s aggressive,” she said. “It’s everything you want in a basketball game.”

Look who's back

Muffet McGraw’s never done recruiting. Sometimes, that includes past players, not just future ones.

As the Notre Dame coach hunted for every edge possible to combat UConn in the national semifinals, she mentioned early in the week that she was “trying to channel my inner K-Mac (Kayla McBride), Natalie Achonwa and Ariel Braker.”

“That trio, they really had a great record against Connecticut,” McGraw said about her Class of 2014 tri-captains who completed their careers 7-6 against the Huskies. “So maybe we’ll have to bring them back and see if they can talk to the team.”

Mission two-thirds accomplished.

“Nat and Ariel are coming, (but) Kayla is still overseas,” McGraw confirmed on the eve of Friday’s game.

Achonwa and Braker were among several ex-Irish standouts from a variety of eras anticipated in Columbus for the Final Four.

The presence of the ex-players, while not surprising, is deeply appreciated by the current players, according to ND senior Kathryn Westbeld.

“Honestly, it means so much,” Westbeld said. “Coach has done such an amazing job with this program, and I was fortunate enough to go through her Hall of Fame party when it happened (last fall), and just to see everyone who came back then and just genuinely loves her.”

A regular event at Notre Dame home games is the introduction of past players during timeouts. They’re typically welcomed by warm ovations.

“It’s amazing to see everyone come back and still feel like they’re part of the family,” Westbeld said. “I don’t think that happens at a lot of places. For it to be that genuine, you can’t find that everywhere.”

Added Westbeld of the players who return, “I didn’t play with them, but I’m good friends with some of them. Just to be able to say that and know them and talk to them and hear about their experiences, it’s great.”

Triple ripple

Marina Mabrey’s scorching 3-point shooting over the last two-thirds of the season — including a beyond-scorching percentage during postseason — has come after the junior guard at one point wasn’t sure she’d ever recover her form in 2017-18.

“I think for a little bit, I convinced myself I was going to be broke for the rest of the year,” Mabrey confessed recently. “Once I came out of that kind of thinking, the shots just fell.”

A 40.2 percent 3-point shooter over her first two Notre Dame seasons, Mabrey began this one connecting on just 17-of-66 for 25.8 percent through the 12-game mark.

Since then, however, she’s drained 66-of-141 for 46.8 percent.

That includes going 17-of-27 for a blazing 63.0 percent in the four NCAA Tourney games the Irish played heading into Friday night’s Final Four encounter with Connecticut.

“It wasn’t anything about my shot,” Mabrey said. “It was all in my head. Once you get out of your own head, the ball’s going in the basket. I trust myself enough to know that I’ve practiced enough to know my shot will go down eventually.”

So why’d she go into the slump in the first place then?

“I mean, I’m a very in-my-head type of person, so when I started missing shots, I got really mad about it,” Mabrey said. “Until you stop being mad about it and stop focusing on the past, it’s going to keep happening.”

Mabrey’s increased point-guard duties, which took effect a couple games after her shooting began to heat up, have done nothing to bring it down.

“Getting her to run the offense and think pass first was not something she was used to doing,” Irish coach Muffet McGraw said. “She worked all summer on her shot. So going through the transition of a scorer to, ‘Now I’ve got to look for everybody else,’ and now she’s figured out, ‘I can do both.’ So it’s been a long road for her, and she’s done a fabulous job at it, especially in calling plays.”

Including calling the ones that call for Mabrey to shoot.

At home in Ohio

Notre Dame’s Kathryn Westbeld and Kaitlin Cole — the lone two Final Four players from Ohio — have soaked up the experience of being back in their home state, even if it’s made them busier.

“A lot of my friends go here, to Ohio State, so they’ve been texting me this entire week, like, ‘Oh, my gosh, I’m so excited for you,’” Cole said. “All my family and friends are coming. It’s just amazing that it’s here.”

Cole, a sophomore walk-on, rarely plays meaningful minutes, but that changed in the NCAA Tournament’s second round, when she played some critical first-half ones and held her own against Villanova while the Irish were holding back an injured Westbeld until the second half.

“I always prepare myself in case someone gets in foul trouble,” Cole said. “I’m always ready to go in. The Villanova game, it was unexpected, but it was a lot of (factors).”

Cole is from Toledo, about 140 miles from Columbus, while Westbeld’s from Kettering, just 75 miles from Columbus.

Each fielded plenty of inquires regarding Final Four tickets, but the NCAA allotts just six free tickets per Final Four player and up to six more at a discount, according to Westbeld.

“I have seven people in my immediate family, including me, so those (free) six were immediately gone,” Westbeld said.

For Westbeld and Cole alike, demand exceeded supply.

“My mom’s basically taken everything off my shoulders,” Westbeld said. “She’s kind of taken the initiative and is talking to all my family members’ friends, trying to let them know where they can get tickets.”

Some of Westbeld’s Columbus-area friends planned a watch party in lieu of attending Friday’s game.

Cole said at least 20 of her family and friends were planning to come to Friday’s game, including some fellow Notre Dame students.

Ironically, her in-state family was flying in from out of state because they’d already left for spring break.

Columbus clips

• Mabrey had 17 3-pointers in her first four NCAA tournament games. That’s five shy of the tournament record of 22 set by UConn guard Kia Nurse in 2017.

• Notre Dame and Connecticut are the only teams to appear in at least six of the last eight Final Fours.

• The Irish arrived in Ohio in search of their second championship in school history; the Huskies were shooting for their fifth this decade and 12th overall.

• Connecticut entered Friday’s game 117-18 all time (.863 win percentage) in NCAA tournament play. Notre Dame was 60-23.

• Players on each of the four teams were allotted six free tickets for family and friends with the chance to purchase up to six additional seats in 20,000-seat Nationwide Arena.

• The media setup at Nationwide is a little unique. To access the main floor, media have to cut across an exclusive dining area used during NHL games. It has the only nearby tunnel to the court.

• Notre Dame entered Friday’s national semifinal with 11 victories over ranked teams this season and four against teams in the Top 10. The Irish are 85-15 over the last six seasons against Top 25 teams.

• The 2019 Final Four is headed to another NHL arena — Amalie Arena in Tampa, Fla. The four regional sites are set for Albany, N.Y., Chicago, Greensboro, N.C., and Portland, Ore.

• The media workroom in the belly of Nationwide Arena was scheduled to remain open for four hours after the end of the second game, which meant reporters could work on their stories until close to 4 a.m. Saturday. The workroom for Saturday’s schedule of media events opens four hours later.

Notre Dame's Jessica Shepard and Kathryn Westbeld share a laugh in the locker room during the NCAA Women’s Final Four media day events Thursday, March 29, 2018 inside Nationwide Arena in Columbus, Ohio. Tribune Photo/MICHAEL CATERINA