Noie: Jessica Shepard a key contributor for Notre Dame

Tom Noie
South Bend Tribune

She stood there and just stared, simmered about the situation and how to solve it. Could she? Would she?

It was early July and Notre Dame senior forward Jessica Shepard was in her off-campus apartment. She had just watched the ring that holds her car and apartment keys flush down the toilet. There they went, around and around and down to the netherworld, likely cruising along some sewer pipe headed somewhere that she just didn’t want to think about.

“They fell in by accident,” Shepard said. “And then before I knew it, they were gone. You couldn’t see them.”

There was a sliver of a chance that they might still be somewhere in the pipe. Stuck. Sitting there waiting to be rescued. But how? Shepard called home to Fremont, Neb., for her dad. No answer. She dialed her mom. Same. What was she going to do? Who was going to help her out of all this?

“You get to the point where you’re so mad,” Shepard said, “that you just laugh.”

Shepard eventually reached her dad. First thing he told her was that with no spare set of car keys, it would cost in the neighborhood of $500 to replace. Adding to her predicament, Shepard’s wallet was in, of all places, her car. So to go and pay for the new car key, she’d have to break into her car.

Shepard’s dad mentioned that she could check if the keys were by chance stuck somewhere in the pipe. She’d have to drain the water from the toilet, unscrew it from the floor, remove the commode and then examine the pipe to see if they were there.

“Once my dad told me it was going to cost like $500 for a new set, I was more motivated to get those keys out of there,” Shepard said. “I channeled my inner plumber.”

Twenty minutes later, Shepard reached a crossroads. The pipe had a bend at an odd angle. Either the keys would be lodged on that small ledge or floating off to oblivion. There they were. Waiting to be grabbed. Rescued. Reclaimed. Shepard reached in and squeezed them tightly. It was a good day.

“I was pretty proud of myself,” she said. “My teammates, I always tell them I can do a lot of different things. They’ve never believed me.

Now they’re like, ‘Wow, you weren’t lying.’ Prime example, right there.”

Quite the ride

It’s been that kind of charmed 12 months for Shepard. Just when it looks like nothing is going to work out, everything does. It started when she transferred to Notre Dame after two solid, All-Big Ten seasons at Nebraska. Shepard filed a waiver with the NCAA to skip the mandatory sit-out transfer season and play right away. That seldom happens. It rarely does for someone who just wanted to play someplace else. That’s typically a mandatory, clear-cut one year sit out. The deeper it got in the calendar, the more Shepard figured she’d have to spend the 2017-18 on the sideline. Sitting. Watching. Waiting.

“We had turned in all the paperwork that the NCAA requested and had been honest about my reason to transfer,” she said. “You hear that a lot of times, those cases are like 50-50. You don’t know which way they’re going to go.

“I just put everything into it and had to wait and see.”

And wait. and wait. Summer came and went. The fall semester started. So did the start of preseason practice. Not a word from the NCAA. Finally, on Nov. 1, Shepard received the green light. She was granted immediate eligibility. How? Why? No one knows for sure. Or won’t say. Citing student privacy laws, the NCAA does not comment on why they rule how they do in transfer hardship cases such as Shepard’s.

“It was a long process,” she said. “Once the season got going, it was just basketball.”

High-level basketball. Winning basketball. Shepard said back when that one reason she transferred to Notre Dame was a chance to play for a national championship. Maybe even win one. But she didn’t expect that to happen her first season. Not for someone who had never so much as played in the NCAA tournament. Last year was supposed to about baby steps for Shepard, who then earned first team All-Atlantic Coast Conference honors after averaging 15.6 points and 8.1 rebounds a game. As an NCAA tourney first-timer, she averaged 19.0 and 9.3.

Last the 6-foot-4 Shepard was seen in a Notre Dame uniform, she was in a locker room of Nationwide Arena in Columbus, Ohio on Easter night. A group of teammates huddled and hugged in one corner. Coach Muffet McGraw conducted a mass interview in the room’s center. Shepard just stood there smiling, the game ball of the national championship game still tucked under her arm. She tried to soak it all in, tried to process what it all meant.

But she couldn’t. Not then. Not now. Sometimes when chilling in spring and summer with teammates, it kind of hits her.

“I’ll be sitting there with them and be like, ‘We really won,’” Shepard said. “Like, how? It still hasn’t sunk in for a lot of us yet.”

Notre Dame won its second national championship in school history and first in 17 seasons thanks in large part to Shepard, who had no idea what it was like to play in the NCAA tournament, let alone the Final Four. Or a national championship game. Maybe that was best. With no prior reference point, Shepard had no idea about the magnitude of the moment. In many ways, those two games that weekend in Columbus were just normal games for Shepard. Just run the floor, make some shots, play some defense, grab some rebounds and compete. No big deal. But it was.

“For me, it was a dream,” Shepard said. “It wasn’t something that I was going to take for granted. My mindset was to do anything the team needs.”

Shepard did a little of everything. Against Connecticut, she went for 15 points, 11 rebounds and five assists in a career-high 43 minutes. Two nights later, she had 19 points and six rebounds against Mississippi State. Had it not been for Arike Ogunbowale’s last-second shot, Shepard should have been named tournament most outstanding player.

If only everyone knew what was to come.

Doing, wanting more

Shepard doesn’t think about what might have been for her that night in Ohio. She thinks about only what is. That Notre Dame won the national championship that Shepard sought in her transfer. That she played a big part. Her main thought days afterward centered on getting right back into the gym and going for another one. Next season couldn’t get here soon enough.

“When we got back (from Columbus) we had a mandatory amount of days off,” Shepard said. “We were all just sitting around anxious to get back to working out. You’re tired, but you’re ready to get back to work and get better.”

To end this chapter of Shepard’s story, before another begins in the coming months, we jump back to the start. The keys. The plumbing pickle. Her boast that she can do a lot of different things. Shepard will have the chance to do that this season. Show a different skillset. A year ago, she played the majority of her career-high 1,112 minutes (the same number of points she scored during her two years at Nebraska) at the five spot. In the paint. Around the bucket. But with the return of Brianna Turner, who sat out last season with a knee injury, Shepard gets a chance to expand her game. She’s worked this summer more on facing the basket. Getting that mid-range jumper down to where it can be automatic. Even wandering out toward the 3-point line, where she went 0-for-2 last year. Shepard has the chance to show a different side of her game when Notre Dame embarks July 31 on its foreign tour.

This time last year, getting to the Final Four and playing for a national championship were dreams. This time, anything less would be a disappointment.

“We’re already one of the most motivated teams I’ve been around,” Shepard said. “We know we have to do everything we did last year, but now do it better.”

Jessica Shepard transferred to Notre Dame last summer so she could compete for a national championship. Then she won one in her first NCAA tournament experience. What to do for an encore? More.
Notre Dame’s Jessica Shepard (23) looks at the game ball as she walks into the locker room after Notre Dame beat Mississippi State to win the national title April 1, at Nationwide Arena in Columbus, Ohio.

“We’re already one of the most motivated teams I’ve been around. We know we have to do everything we did last year, but now do it better.”

ND's Jessica Shepard