Jessica Shepard's inside presence proves to impact Irish immediately

Notre Dame's Shepard making big impact for Irish (0:57)

In the wake of an injury-plagued season, Notre Dame junior forward Jessica Shepard has become a go-to player for the Irish. (0:57)

COLUMBUS -- The uncertainty was the toughest part.

Until the NCAA approved Notre Dame power forward Jessica Shepard's transfer waiver on Nov. 1, the day the Irish faced Indiana University of Pennsylvania in an exhibition game, neither she nor the Irish coaches were certain how to proceed.

Shepard's talent through two seasons at Nebraska was obvious -- she was first-team All-Big Ten as a freshman -- and no one doubted whether she could help right away. Dare they run her much with the first team, teaching her the nuances of an offense and a defense she might not need for another season? Or should they limit her to the scout team?

"The hardest thing for me was that you kind of want to build some things around her," Notre Dame coach Muffet McGraw said. "Then, at the same time, you think, 'Well, if she's not going to play, you're wasting all this time.' So learning she could play at the last minute made it a little bit tougher, because we weren't really geared to throwing it inside as much."

Fortunately for the Irish, Shepard proved a good fit with the players around her -- outgoing, adaptable, coachable and a quick learner.

With Notre Dame down to seven scholarship players thanks to a 10-month run of knee ligament tears, Shepard's inside presence has pushed the 33-3 Irish into their eighth Final Four, where UConn (36-0) awaits in Friday's semifinals.

Shepard, who finished second on the team in scoring (15.6 points per game) and led in rebounding (8.1), had 18 points and nine rebounds in Monday's 84-74 victory over Oregon in the Elite Eight, but that's far from the best she's played this season.

Her first of 14 double-doubles this season came in the season opener against Mount St. Mary's -- 10 days after the NCAA declared her eligible -- when she netted 18 points and 11 rebounds in just 19 minutes.

Her career-high 39 points on Dec. 17 against DePaul set a Purcell Pavilion scoring record, breaking Ruth Riley's mark by three and falling two short of the overall school record shared by Riley and Jewell Loyd. In the postseason, she posted five consecutive double-doubles from the ACC semifinals to the Sweet 16, the first Irish player in 15 years with such a run. She missed a sixth by one rebound. In four NCAA tournament games, she averaged 20 points on 56.5 percent shooting and 9.8 rebounds.

"She's really come along because she's really special," McGraw said. "She can rebound. She can put it on the floor. She can pass. She can score in a lot of different ways. So I think her impact is continual. I think she is continuing to improve.

"I think she is one of the best power forwards in the country, and she certainly has played that way for us. We wouldn't be here without her."

As a kid, Shepard watched Notre Dame-UConn games on TV. Friday, she gets to be a part of one, on the biggest national stage.

"Obviously I got to play them earlier in the year, and I got to play them two years at Nebraska," Shepard said. "But it's not the same. To be here at the Final Four playing them, it's a big deal."

Nebraska never qualified for the NCAA tournament while she was there, driving her urge to transfer. Exactly what in Shepard's application swayed the NCAA to waive the mandatory one-year wait for transfers remains unclear. McGraw said it was for personal reasons, and Shepard has offered no additional details. Once in South Bend, Shepard said adapting to new teammates and a more challenging academic environment was a breeze.

"It says a lot about the girls and how open they are," she said. "It would have been very easy for them to have their guard up, to have a new player come in. They've all been really open to what the coaches have asked them to do.

"I fit in pretty quick. For me, it's still basketball. It's still school. It's the same thing. I'm just doing what I love."

Shepard's outgoing personality eased the adjustment.

"I think her impact was immediate," senior forward Kathryn Westbeld said. "Even when she came in in the summer, during practices and workouts she was one of the loudest ones, talking to everybody, really trying to get to know everybody and fit in as much as she could."

Added junior guard Marina Mabrey: "Jess is very happy-go-lucky, a great person, fun to be around. Fitting in wasn't a problem. We just had to help her learn our plays and stuff. She was very accepting of help, and that made it a lot of easier."

Meanwhile, Shepard had to learn to play in the post with her back to the basket instead of facing up. The switch made sense to associate coach Carol Ross, McGraw's longest-tenured assistant (18 seasons in two stints) and long responsible for Notre Dame's post players.

"First, she's really good at it," Ross said. "And she's different kind of [post player]. You can take her a little bit off the block and she can use her feet and her ball-handling skills to drive it, or to kick it out to Marina or Arike [Ogunbowale]. If she gets double-teamed, she can get Kathryn Westbeld cutting down the lane. She has become a matchup problem for other teams."

Shepard will be even more dangerous once she masters the hook shot Ross has been teaching her, a lost art Shepard is grasping.

"Being a better overall player, playing hard on both ends of the court, is the biggest thing," Shepard said. "This year I've played [post] for the most part, which is not something I'm used to. I'm getting used to banging down low and finishing inside the whole time rather than kind of stretching the defense."

The Irish face a tough task Friday night, against a UConn team that came from behind to win 80-71 on Dec. 3 in their only meeting this season. Shepard had 10 points on 5-for-13 shooting with eight rebounds on a night the Irish led 62-54 after three quarters, then managed only nine points the rest of the way. To win, Shepard needs to provide the same inside presence she has the past month.

"We all love playing with her," Westbeld said. "She works so hard. She's made such an impact on the court at both ends. And obviously with our injuries, we're lucky to have her."