Women's Elite Eight: Stanford provides next test for Notre Dame

Jessica Shepard hopes to make her second straight Final Four with Notre Dame, but they will have to get through Stanford to do it. AP Photo/Kiichiro Sato

CHICAGO -- When the game got dicey Saturday, Mark Shepard figured things could always be worse. For three weeks, they have been much worse.

Shepard, the father of Notre Dame forward Jessica Shepard, is a school superintendent in Fremont, Nebraska. Some people in his town are living in an old, vacated J.C. Penney store because their houses have been destroyed by flooding.

Watching Jessica play basketball in the women's NCAA tournament has been a nice reprieve for Mark and Jessica's mother, Kim Shepard. They were in Chicago on Saturday when their daughter collected 24 points and 14 rebounds to help the Fighting Irish stave off Texas A&M in the Sweet 16. One more win -- the top-seeded Irish play No. 2 seed Stanford on Monday night at Wintrust Arena -- and the defending national champions are back in the Final Four.

The Shepards have tried to make it to as many games as possible during Jessica's senior season. A few days after they returned home from the ACC tournament in mid-March, a bomb cyclone hit the Great Plains, dumping heavy rain and wind on frozen ground covered in snow. It helped produce the worst flooding in 50 years in Nebraska and hammered Fremont, a town of about 26,000.

The Shepards' house was spared from the flood; many others weren't. For several days, the only way in and out of town was by private airplanes flown by volunteers. Two of Jessica's siblings, high school basketball coaches in Nebraska, got stuck because of flooding but are OK. Back in Fremont, Mark worked the 7 p.m. to 7 a.m. shift at a middle school that was converted into a shelter.

"When you have a major crisis like we had in Fremont, it does keep things in perspective of what really matters," Mark said. "I mean, at the end of the day, we're going home to our house, we're going to be able to stay in our house. And for others, that's just not the case."

Jessica was in South Bend, Indiana, far removed from the disaster. She talked to her mom right after it happened but didn't realize the magnitude of it until she saw the images of her home state on social media.

If things had gone as planned, Shepard would've been living 50 miles away from Fremont in Lincoln, Nebraska. She wanted to be a Cornhusker so badly as a kid that she committed to the University of Nebraska as an eighth-grader.

But the Huskers went through a coaching change after her freshman season, then had the worst season in school history the following year. Shepard had goals of playing in a Final Four and becoming a better player, so she knew she had to go somewhere else.

Notre Dame provided some familiarity. She had roomed with Irish forward Brianna Turner during their time on the U.S. 18-and-under team. Before they parted ways, Turner gave Shepard a Notre Dame T-shirt. Six years later, Shepard's little sister, Emma, still wears that shirt.

Turner was one of the people who talked to Irish coach Muffet McGraw when word hit that Shepard was transferring.

"My first conversation with Jess," McGraw said, "all she talked about was, 'I just want to win. I want to come some place where we can win a national championship. I don't care how many points I score, I don't care about any of the stats. I just want to win.'

"I just immediately ... I hung up the phone and said to my husband, 'That's somebody I would love to coach.'"

The NCAA granted Shepard a waiver to play right away, and McGraw called it an early Christmas present. Shepard helped Notre Dame win a national championship in her first season. While Shepard shot numerous 3-pointers during her time at Nebraska, McGraw wanted her down on the block more. Shepard is part of a lineup that has produced the highest-scoring offense in women's basketball.

Her teammates immediately took to her. On Sunday, with all five starters seated at a news conference, the Irish were asked to give examples of Shepard's strength. Turner said that in the weight room, she will grab a 30-pound dumbbell and Shepard will reach for a 60-pounder.

"She beat me in arm wrestling once," guard Arike Ogunbowale said.

"Jess pushed me really lightly and pulled something in my back," another teammate said, laughing.

All of this, Shepard conceded, was probably true. The senior is having fun, she's seeing her potential and on Monday night, she'll have center stage in the Elite Eight. Her mom and dad will be watching. So will Fremont, Nebraska.