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Kevin Stankiewicz | | March 31, 2018

Notre Dame's Jessica Shepard could be the difference-maker in national championship

Notre Dame beats UConn in OT

COLUMBUS, Ohio — After every game, Notre Dame coach Muffet McGraw says, the Irish raise a toast to the state of Nebraska and Jessica Shepard.

It’s a joke. Probably.

But McGraw’s message comes through seriously.

Notre Dame has lost four players to ACL injuries this season yet managed to build a 34-3 record on its way to the national championship game. Along the way, Shepard has 15 double-doubles, and entered the Final Four averaging 20 points and 9.8 rebounds through four NCAA tournament games.

MORE: Notre Dame’s Muffet McGraw wins AP Coach of the Year after tough road to Final Four

“We wouldn’t be here without her,” McGraw said Friday night after her Irish won a madcap national semifinal against UConn, 91-89, in overtime.

If the Irish finish the job Sunday against Mississippi State, Shepard’s performance likely will be a key reason they return to South Bend with the program’s second national title in tow.

And not just because of what she can do on the offense end. It’s because Shepard, a transfer from Nebraska, will be leading the team’s charge to slow down Teaira McCowan, Mississippi State’s dominant 6-foot-7 center who had 21 points and a Final Four-record 25 rebounds Friday.

There’s two main things to understand about playing against the All-American McCowan. One, stopping McCowan isn’t really an option; it’s about slowing her down. Two, it isn’t squarely on one player, in this case Shepard; it takes a team effort.

MORE: Full coverage of the Women's National Championship

Shepard knows it won’t be easy. But she’s embracing it. She came to Notre Dame to compete for championships, and to win them.

To be the best, you have to beat the best.

“McCowan is a great player,” the 6-foot-4 forward Shepard said Saturday. “She’s a great, physical post player down low. She’s a great rebounder and shot-blocker too, so it will be important to keep her off the boards and do whatever the coaches ask us to defensively.”

As you would expect, McGraw didn’t delve too much into the specific gameplan; neither did assistant coach Beth Cunningham, who compared McCowan to former Baylor star Brittney Griner.

McGraw said part of the difficulty lies in Mississippi State’s ability to shoot the ball. The Bulldogs rank No. 6 in the country in 3-point shooting percentage, so when you try to double McCowan, you end up leaving someone open.

Watch: Arike Ogunbowale's game-winner sends Notre Dame to national championship, ends UConn's perfect season 

Another part of the problem, McGraw said, is simply McCowan’s size.

“You've got to try to get a body on her, but she's just so darn big that you can't outjump her,” the National Coach of the Year said. “... So I don't know. We have a couple of plans that we'll go to, and hopefully one of them will work.”

Shepard, forward Kristina Nelson and the rest of the Irish will have their hands full. That much is clear. But for Mississippi State, Shepard also presents challenges because of what she brings to the table as a post player. That’s why, as McGraw said, she is so valuable.

Shepard is averaging 15.5 points and 8.2 rebounds per game, and had 15 and 11 against UConn. She is a good passer; her 91 assists on the year are fourth on the team. She also has a strong jump shot, even if she hasn’t showcased it as much this year.

MORE: The world went nuts when Notre Dame's buzzer-beater defeated UConn in the Women's Final Four

While her biggest contributions Sunday might need to come defensively, the Irish will be in a good spot if she’s able to find success offensively and put pressure on McCowan on that end of the floor.

Louisville coach Jeff Walz spoke at length about how important it would be for his team to limit McCowan’s impact. The Cardinals tried, but ultimately failed.

McCowan, along with key contributions from senior guard Victoria Vivians and junior guard Jordan Danberry, proved to be too much.

Shepard and her teammates now have their chance.

They’ve dealt with injuries, but regardless, they overcame them. Shepard’s overcame challenges, too — a knee injury of her own and the uncertainty of whether she would be able to play right away after transferring. She was granted the waiver, though, and her presence has helped propel Notre Dame to the doorstep of a championship.

If the Irish end up raising the trophy Sunday night, Shepard’s contributions on both ends of the floor will probably be a big reason why. Perhaps McGraw will raise an actual toast to her, too.

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