Jessica Shepard Excels In First USA Basketball Experience
Colorado Springs, Colorado
The 2014 USA Basketball Women’s U18 National Team is comprised of many familiar and experienced faces for American basketball fans.
Taking the ropes is head coach Dawn Staley (University of South Carolina), a 10-time USA Basketball medalist as a player, including three Olympic gold medals and two FIBA World Championship gold medals. Staley has also served as a coach on multiple occasions for the USA, and will pull double duty when she serves as an assistant coach for the Women’s National Team in the FIBA World Championship later this year.
Also on the U18 team is Brianna Turner, a Notre Dame rising freshman and four-time USA Basketball gold medalist, who is vying for her fifth when the USA opens up play at the USA Basketball-hosted 2014 FIBA Americas U18 Championship on Wednesday, Aug. 6 against Mexico, in Colorado Springs, Colorado.
With Staley and Turner bringing the expertise, newcomer Jessica Shepard (Fremont H.S./Fremont, Neb.) has made sure to not only absorb all of it, but also establish her own style on an incredibly talented squad.
Shepard hails from Fremont, Nebraska, and observing her mellow demeanor can give you a hint into her Midwest roots and lifestyle. Yet when she gets on the court, a transformation occurs and the sweet, easygoing girl disappears. Instead, in comes a player ready to attack.
“Once I get on the court and it’s time to play, it’s time to play. It’s business.” Shepard said.
The women’s U18 trials back in May marked the first time that Shepard was participating in anything USA Basketball related.
They were her first trials; her first time in Colorado Springs and the first time she faced some of the best talent in the nation all at once.
Shepard suffered a setback, as she injured herself after two practice sessions and was unable to play for the remaining of trials. However, her performance was strong enough that she was selected as one of the 12-members of the U18 National Team.
“Throughout trials, I got hurt so I didn’t think I was going to make it,” Shepard said. “When I did, it was unreal- you can’t really describe it with words. It was one of the best feelings I’ve ever felt. To get to come back here and compete with these girls has been an amazing experience.”
After reassembling in Colorado Springs more than a week ago for training camp, the U18 women’s team is anxiously awaiting the start of the FIBA Americas U18 Championship, which is now only two days away.
For Shepard especially, this will represent the first time she will don a USA uniform and will compete for an international gold medal.
“I’m just looking forward to going out there and representing the USA; it should be a great feeling. I can’t wait.”
Despite being a newcomer to the USA Basketball world, Shepard is no stranger to success.
In 2014, she helped lead her Fremont High School team to a 22-4 record, reaching the NSAA Class A state quarterfinals. She averaged 30.4 points, 14.8 rebounds and 2.8 assists per game. She also recorded a single-game career-high 43 points during her junior season.
Her success earned her many accolades, including 2014 Gatorade High School Nebraska Girls Basketball Player of the Year, an award she also received as a sophomore in 2013, and 2014 USA Today Nebraska Player of the Year.
Those skills have been on full display during training camp, and Shepard, a 6-foot-4 forward, has stepped up whenever Staley has challenged her to be more physical or to post up.
“These practices have been the hardest practices I’ve ever gone through,” she admitted. “They are so physical and fast-paced. I had never played against anything like that; everyone is going 100 percent because we all want to make each other better.
“I think I’ve relaxed and played basketball the way I know how,” Shepard commented on what she has been doing to improve her game. “The first couple of days you feel a lot of pressure, but as you get used to the girls and coaches, you relax and remember it’s just a game.”
After scrimmaging against each other and a group of local volunteers for much of training camp, the past two days have seen the U18 women’s team scrimmage two teams who will also participate in the upcoming FIBA Americas tournament -- Brazil and Canada.
Shepard was part of the starting lineup for both games and her performance has served as an indication of why she might be considered one of the strongest members of this year’s USA squad.
“Those games were very physical,” she said of playing Brazil and Canada on back-to-back nights. “I think we’ve done a great job of pushing the ball and playing physical as well. They’re both really good teams.
“With these two scrimmages, you can see how much we’ve adapted with the difference in the play,” she said of playing under FIBA rules. “I think it is repetition that gets you to play better with these rules.”
Shepard’s ability to get to the basket is providing the USA with a big presence in the middle. If she’s not scoring easy layups, she is contesting baskets or drawing fouls and heading to the charity stripe. During yesterday’s scrimmage against Brazil, Shepard went 8-for-10 from the free throw line; drawing more fouls than anyone else on the team.
“I just like competition,” she said of her love for the game of basketball. “I love the physicality, and I love close games. Getting to know my teammates is great.”
Even with one more year of high school left, Shepard has already verbally committed to attend and play at the University of Nebraska; a decision she said was easy to make.
“It’s what I grew up watching, and they have a great program,” she said. “I’m also really close to my family, so staying at home is special for me.”
The United States Women’s U18 team tips off against Mexico at 5:30 p.m. MDT on Aug. 6 at the U.S. Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs. Admission is free and open to the public. You can also watch the live stream at fibaamericas.com.