There's more to Jessica Shepard's game and less of Jessica Shepard

Anthony Anderson
Tribune Correspondent

SOUTH BEND — There’s been a bit more to Jessica Shepard’s game this season — and a lot less Jessica Shepard.

The Notre Dame women’s basketball star has melted 40 pounds from her 6-foot-4 frame over the last four months to become a sleeker, more agile version of a player who was already good enough to earn All-Atlantic Coast Conference first-team honors and help the Irish to a national title last season.

“I just really locked in on my diet and made sure I was eating right,” Shepard said before practice Friday afternoon of her transformation, “and then I put in a lot of extra work cardio-wise and lifting-wise to make sure I was keeping my strength while losing the weight.”

One of four Notre Dame seniors with WNBA aspirations, Shepard doesn’t doubt she’s going to maintain the edge she’s carved into her body as she chases a pro career.

“I want to be the best player I can be, so I don’t want anything that’s in my control to be the reason I’m not the player I’m capable of being,” Shepard said. “It’s something I can control.”

The Irish forward credits a discussion with Minnesota Lynx coach Cheryl Reeve last September, when Shepard was participating in the USA Women’s National Team training camp in Columbia, S.C.

“We were just talking about my goals for the next level and what I need to do to accomplish them,” Shepard said of Reeve, who has steered the Lynx to four WNBA titles in the last eight years and owns the best winning percentage in league history. “I think one of the biggest things we agreed on was just getting my body right.

“She said the biggest difference between me being good and great was that.”

Shepard and Irish teammate Arike Ogunbowale were among just 18 players invited to the camp in Columbia.

While neither made the team that went on to win FIBA World Cup gold, Shepard has consistently treated that advice she received like gold.

“Jess has had to be really disciplined and committed to it,” Notre Dame coach Muffet McGraw said of keeping the weight off, “and she’s done that. She was talking to some pro coaches through USA Basketball, and they’re pretty honest. It was probably as simple as, ‘You gotta get up and down the floor better.’ That was pretty much all it took, I think, for her to realize that her future depends on her ability to run.”

Shepard’s realization about her future has benefited ND’s present as well.

She’s upped her rebounding from a 8.1 boards per game last season to a team-leading 9.7 this season. She’s also shooting a team-topping 59.2 percent from the field, up from 56.5 last winter, and has slightly upped her assists (from 2.4 to 2.8) and steals (from 0.8 to 1.2).

Shepard’s scoring remains relatively the same — 15.1 this season, 15.6 last season — on a team oozing with weapons.

“The way she rebounds has been amazing to watch,” McGraw said. “She’s so strong with the ball and it gets our transition game going. She’s outleting almost to half-court sometimes, because she’s able to. She’s got such good vision and strength.”

Shepard says she takes pride in both her crisp outlets and in her forecourt passing.

“I was a point guard growing up,” said the Fremont, Neb., native, “so I’m just taking those skills and trying to facilitate. I think it definitely helps open things up inside and outside.”

In what’s been a contagious stretch, just about everybody is facilitating for the No. 2-ranked Irish lately.

Over its last five games, Notre Dame has averaged 95.8 points, shot 59.3 percent from the field, dished 25.6 assists per outing and compiled a 2.2 assist-to-turnover ratio.

Over the coming games, a pair of huge milestones are on the horizon for Shepard. She needs 98 points for 2,000 in her career and just 16 rebounds for 1,000.

While not all of Shepard’s numbers have come with the Irish — she starred for two years in the Big Ten at Nebraska before transferring in 2017 — the rarity of a 2,000/1,000 double is punctuated by the fact that Ruth Riley is the only woman who has ever worn an Irish uniform and accomplished the feat.

The winner of the Naismith Award as the nation’s best player while leading ND to a national title in 2001, Riley closed her career that year with 2,072 points and with the 1,007 rebounds that remain a program record.

“It’s definitely not something I’m focused on,” Shepard said of a 2K/1K double, “or something I even have a clue what the numbers are right now, but I think it’s obviously special when people pass milestones, and to be one of two (Notre Dame players who have reached 2,000/1,000) would be really special.”

With good health, Shepard is likely to sail well beyond those marks.

“It just changes the game when she’s in there for us, at both ends of the floor, because she uses her size so well,” McGraw said of Shepard. “She’s willing to be physical, and she’s an

exceptional player who clearly made the difference in our team last year after Bri (Turner) went down.

“Everybody was the MVP in my mind last year, but she certainly as much as anyone propelled us to the national championship, and she’s a big reason for where we are right now.”

Taking on Tech

The Irish (13-1, 1-0) face one of their more familiar opponents when they play their ACC road opener Sunday afternoon at Georgia Tech (11-3, 1-0).

This is the fourth straight year that ND and the Yellow Jackets meet twice in the regular season.

Last winter’s matchups started out as distinct opposites. The visiting Irish roared to a 48-18 halftime lead on their way to a 77-54 win on Jan. 7, but five weeks later, Tech forged a 39-39

halftime deadlock at Notre Dame before falling 85-69.

“They’re a team that likes to create chaos with their defense by pressing and trapping and constantly trying to keep you out of rhythm,” McGraw said Friday of the Jackets, “so it’s going to be a team we really have to be focused on taking care of the ball. We’re playing well, but we really haven’t been pressed for a while.”

Week of upsets

No. 1 Connecticut — the team that five weeks ago took down then-No. 1 Notre Dame, 89-71 — was dealt a defeat of its own Thursday, falling 68-57 at No. 8 Baylor.

The loss not only ended the Huskies’ regular-season winning streak at 126, but was the second major upset in women’s college basketball in four days.

On Monday, unranked Rutgers scored a 73-65 win at No. 4 Maryland.

“Love to see the parity in our game,” McGraw said of the two outcomes. “I think it’s great for the game. It’s great to have these kinds of games this early in the season. I think on the women’s

side, people like to play good teams more often. It just shows you anything can happen.”

Notre Dame’s Jessica Shepard passes the ball away as she falls to the court in front of Western Kentucky’s Dee Givens on Dec. 19 in South Bend.

WHO: No. 2 Notre Dame (13-1, 1-0 ACC) vs. Georgia Tech (11-3, 1-0).

WHERE: McCamish Pavilion (8,600), Atlanta.

WHEN: Sunday, 3 p.m.

TV: RSN.

RADIO: Pulse (103.1 / 96.9 / 92.1 FM).

NOTING: Georgia Tech landed a pair of well-regarded recruits from Tennessee and both freshmen have contributed right away. Elizabeth Balogun, a 6-1 guard from Chattanooga, is averaging a team-leading 14.8 points and 1.3 blocks to go with a net effective field goal percentage of 54.6, while Elizabeth Dixon, a 6-5 forward from Memphis, is at 10.2 points and a team-pacing 6.8 rebounds to go with 54.4 percent shooting. The Jackets also have junior Francesca Pan at 13.9 points and 2.4 steals, and sophomore Kierra Fletcher at 9.1 points and 1.9 steals. … Tech, 6-0 at home, has split a pair of matchups against ranked teams, beating then-No. 14 Georgia 63-53 and losing at currently No. 4 Maryland 67-54. … Purdue product Machelle Joseph is in her 16th year as Jacket coach with a 305-194 record, including 0-9 against Notre Dame. … Irish leaders are Arike Ogunbowale (22.7 ppg, 3.4 assists), Jackie Young (15.6 ppg, 4.9 apg), Jessica Shepard (15.1 ppg, 9.7 rpg), Marina Mabrey (14.7 ppg, 4.6 apg) and Brianna Turner (13.1 ppg, 7.5 rpg, 2.5 blocks). … ND gave up the second-fewest points its allowed in its last 74 games while pummeling Pittsburgh 100-44 on Thursday. The Irish led 85-24 through three quarters.

QUOTING: “I was thrilled with that. I thought that’s the best game we’ve played all year, the first half especially. Just great defense, really moved the ball on offense, a lot of assists, just some really, really great aggressive plays.” — Notre Dame coach Muffet McGraw on Thursday’s win over Pitt.