ND Women’s Basketball
Shepard, Irish roll past Pittsburgh on the road
Elizabeth Greason | Friday, January 26, 2018
In a season that has been plagued by bad news, Jessica Shepard has been a bright spot for the No. 5 Irish.
The junior forward’s presence on the team has been a difference-maker for Notre Dame (19-2, 7-1 ACC) on numerous occasions in her first season on the team since transferring from Nebraska. And Thursday’s win over Pitt was no different.
While the outcome of the game was in doubt for just over half of the first quarter in which the Panthers (9-12, 1-7) led by up to four points. However, once the Irish tied the game at nine points apiece with 3:43 remaining in the first quarter, there was no looking back, as Shepard and Irish charged ahead to an 87-53 victory.
While the Irish outscored the Panthers in each stanza, the Notre Dame offense remained stagnant until the end of the first quarter, as the Irish went on a 13-2 run over the final four minutes to go up 20-11 at the first buzzer. However, the energetic Notre Dame offense did not truly wake up until the second quarter, in which the Irish outscored the Panthers by a margin of 14 points.
Junior guard Marina Mabrey, who has switched over to playing the point guard position since graduate student guard Lili Thompson went down for the season with a torn ACL on Dec. 31, was a major contributor for the Irish on both ends of the court, tallying 21 points, five rebounds, five assists and five steals. Junior guard Arike Ogunbowale, the reigning ACC Player of the Week and USBWA National Player of the Week, also played a major role in the Irish win, pitching in 14 points, six rebounds and two steals.
It was Shepard who stole the show. Her 28 points — including 13 points in the first quarter and an individual run of 11-consecutive Notre Dame points — and 12 rebounds marked her seventh double-double of the season. It was also her fourth game of the season with over 20 points.
“We generally try to work inside out and I thought Jessica had the size advantage really right from the tip,” Irish head coach Muffet McGraw said. “I thought we could’ve done a little better job of making some shots in the first half — what was it 38 percent in the first quarter? — we just didn’t shoot the ball well in the first half. She did a little better later on, she missed her first four I think, but was better later.”
McGraw noted that the strategy to get the ball to Shepard was particularly effective Thursday against the Panthers.
“The high-low was working for us,” McGraw said. “We were really looking for each other from the high post and I thought the guards did a good job.”
Defensively, the Irish shone bright at times against the Panthers. They held Pitt scoreless for nearly four minutes during the second quarter. While the margins between the Panthers and the Irish got closer in the third and fourth quarters — eight points and three points, respectively — Notre Dame’s lead grew, despite giving up a few late 3-pointers.
“I thought [the defense] was good, I thought we were active in the zone,” McGraw said. “They got some 3s late, but I thought overall we had a lot of pressure on the ball.”
To start the fourth quarter, Mabrey drained back-to-back 3-pointers, which helped add to her welcome rebound from her two-point performance against Clemson on Sunday.
Midway through the final period, McGraw began to pull the members of her starting rotation to allow the shorthanded Irish scholarship players to sit, rotating in sophomore guard Kaitlin Cole, junior forward Maureen Butler and freshman guard Nicole Benz. With just seven scholarship players remaining on the Irish roster and no depth at the guard position, McGraw’s starters have had very little time to rest this season, so the Hall of Famer noted the final quarter afforded them a welcome opportunity.
“It was nice to be able to play the bench,” McGraw said. “Marina played — I had to leave her in — but it’s great to play the bench, to give them some reward because they’re working hard at practice too.”
Next up for the Irish is a battle against No. 8 Florida State, one of the other three team tied atop the ACC standings at the moment.
The Seminoles (18-2, 6-1) most recently downed Louisville — Notre Dame’s only ACC loss this season and its third-ever loss in the conference — 50-49. Senior forward Shakayla Thomas and redshirt-senior guard Imani Wright each put up double-digit performances in the outing.
The Irish will head to Tallahasse, Florida, to face off against the Seminoles with tipoff scheduled for 4 p.m.