Huskers' Shepard dominant freshman, and only getting better
LINCOLN, Neb. (AP) Nebraska's Jessica Shepard got an important call before Sunday's game at Michigan. Wes Shepard, a hall of fame high school basketball coach in Lincoln, had a nit to pick.
Grandpa told her she needed to do a better job rebounding.
Jessica then went out and grabbed 20 boards. Oh, and she scored 35 points.
''I talked to him today,'' she said Tuesday, ''and he didn't have any complaints about my rebounding.''
Just another impressive performance for Shepard in a terrific freshman season. Rated a top-five recruit in the country last year, and easily the best ever signed by Nebraska, she has delivered more than could have been expected for a player coming off a torn anterior cruciate ligament in her left knee.
The 6-foot-4 post from Fremont is averaging 20.9 points to rank fourth in the Big Ten and No. 2 among freshmen nationally. Her 9.5 rebound average is third in the conference.
Shepard has been dominant during the Cornhuskers' five-game win streak. She had 29 points and 19 rebounds against Illinois, and then had 29 and 10 against Penn State. She had 22 points against both Rutgers and Purdue but, apparently to grandpa's chagrin, a total of ''just'' 14 rebounds in those two games.
That spurred the 35-20 performance against Michigan that earned her national freshman of the week honors.
''This young lady happens to be a freshman and is one of the best players in the country,'' Wolverines coach Kim Barnes Arico said. ''She is an unbelievable player, and we didn't have an answer for her. She's a monster.''
There was little doubt Shepard would end up at Nebraska. She accepted a scholarship offer from coach Connie Yori in the summer of 2011, before her freshman year of high school. She scored more than 2,200 points during her prep career, which ended prematurely in December 2014 when she tore her ACL.
Shepard wasn't cleared to go full speed until the week before Nebraska's opener but still averaged 20 points and nine rebounds in her first five games. She set the school freshman scoring record with 35 points against Northern Arizona on Dec. 19 and matched it Sunday.
''Did I know that Jess was a really good player? Yes. Did we expect her to impact us greatly her freshman year? Yes, even though she's coming off a knee injury,'' Yori said. ''So some of this is not a big surprise. At the same time, that doesn't take away from what she's done. With high expectations, it's easy to not get wowed by the numbers. But if you really do look at the numbers, it is pretty amazing what she's done.''
Yori is just as excited about Shepard's future.
''She's just tapped such a small percentage of what she can be,'' Yori said. ''She has a chance to be great.''
Yori said Shepard needs to work on her footwork when dealing with double-teams and her perimeter shooting. The coach also wants Shepard to improve setting screens and her play on the defensive end.
For all she has accomplished so far, she will be even better once she regains the conditioning she lost because of the injury.
''Is she 100 percent? I don't think so - not only with her knee but just in terms of being in great basketball shape,'' Yori said. ''I don't think she has the explosiveness she had prior to her injury. It's coming back, but it's not quite there yet.''
Shepard's arrival at Nebraska was much anticipated not just by fans but also by her teammates. Junior center Allie Havers said she pulled up YouTube videos of Shepard last year and started imagining the possibilities.
''She's so dominant in the post,'' Havers said. ''There are so many girls who go and double (her), so she creates for other people. I'm open more, our guards are open more for shots, and it's a huge key to have her on the court.''
Shepard has taken the fanfare in stride. Coaches and teammates love her humble demeanor on and off the court. She said she doesn't pay much attention to the conference and national honors that have come her way.
''There's definitely pressure,'' she said. ''I try not to think about it. It really is just a game that you're going out and playing because you love to play it. I try not to focus on any of the pressure at all and just have fun with it.''