It’s hard to imagine Notre Dame, the newly crowned champion of women’s college basketball, without junior forward Jessica Shepard, but it easily could have happened.

Shepard led the Fighting Irish on Sunday night with 19 points in a 61-58 win over Mississippi State at Nationwide Arena. Plus, she, Kathryn Westbeld and Kristina Nelson took turns dealing with the Bulldogs’ 6-foot-7 Teaira McCowan.

Shepard had to gain a hardship waiver to transfer from her home-state school of Nebraska just to have the chance to play for Notre Dame this season. So there she was, in the Fighting Irish locker room Sunday night, 50 minutes after the win, a national champion.

“It’s unbelievable,” Shepard said.

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She was all-Big Ten as a freshman at Nebraska when she set the school’s record for points in a season and also played well as a sophomore despite a coaching change. But after that change left her bewildered about the direction of the program, she, with the help of Notre Dame and even Nebraska, petitioned for the hardship transfer.

It finally came.

“The day before our first exhibition game” in late October, Shepard said. “I’d literally just done a workout with the (backups) because we didn’t think I’d be playing. And they just walked in the gym and said I was cleared.”

On the biggest stage, she delivered. It was difficult to imagine the Fighting Irish advancing so far without her, especially after they lost four players to knee injuries and ended with only seven usable players.

“This team has gone through so much adversity all year, and to come out as the last team standing, this says a lot about the mental toughness on this team,” Shepard said. “It’s about our ability to play together and how hard we work every day.”

Not big on consolation

McCowan set a record for total rebounds over the course of the six games in the NCAA Tournament with 109, including 17 against Notre Dame to go with her 18 points.

“I was doing something right,” she said.

But as she said it she was frowning. She had fouled out with three seconds left at the end of a helter-skelter play that set up up the finish.

McCowan had been a focus of the Fighting Irish, and the three players who took her on the most — Shepard, Westbeld and Nelson — combined for 11 fouls.

“It was real physical as you can see,” McCowan said. “I mean, they call what they call.”

The towering McCowan ended up on the floor at least five times, too, and for a reason.

“You have to give it your all, you can’t leave anything left in you,” McCowan said.

Six against the world

An hour after the win, Notre Dame’s Marina Mabrey, whose three-pointer — the team’s first of the game — with 1:35 left cut Mississippi State’s lead to 58-56 and whose knockaway from Morgan William in the last seconds was major part of the finale, said she hadn’t thought about her impact.

“But, if I did think about it, I would say it’s just unreal that we were able to win with just six players against everybody’s 12, 13, 14, 15 players,” Mabrey said. “I mean, we’re just the best in the country.”

What can beat this?

Nelson, already holding her degree, had contemplated not returning to the Irish.

Instead, she was part of the win over No. 1 Connecticut on Friday night and a key part of the national championship victory.

So where will the weekend in Columbus go on her mantel of memories?

“It’s No. 1, for sure,” Nelson said.

tmay@dispatch.com

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