Jessica Shepard, Notre Dame
What a ride it’s been for this year for Shepard, who’s made the most of it. The 6-foot-4 junior forward has seen it all after deciding to transfer this year from Nebraska. After leaving Lincoln for personal reasons, Shepard petitioned to play immediately, and the NCAA finally gave its OK days before the first preseason game. “We didn’t know what they were going to decide,” Shepard said, “(but) it has allowed me to play with these girls and for coach (Muffet) McGraw this season.” Shepard was a steadying force all year for the Irish, who overcame several injuries to go 29-3 and earn a No. 1 seed in the Spokane Region. Along the way, Shepard started all 32 games and averaged 15 points and almost eight rebounds to earn first-team All-ACC honors. Shepard hopes to make the most of her first NCAA Tournament. “This is not an opportunity I take lightly,” Shepard said.
Anriel Howard, Texas A&M
The Aggies are in Spokane after a last-second 3-point shot by freshman sensation Chennedy Carter to beat DePaul in the second round. But the game ball – the first coach Gary Blair has awarded in 46 years as a coach – went to Howard. “I wanted to recognize the heart and soul that made the shot happen,” Blair said. “It was the atmosphere that she created.” Howard has done that all year. Only 5-11, the junior ranks ninth in Division I with 11.9 rebounds, along with 11.5 points. On Sunday, it was a three-point play by Howard that sparked a 5-1 spurt that cut a DePaul lead to 74-71 with 2 1/2 minutes left. She finished with 18 points and 19 rebounds. Howard’s only complaint after getting the game ball: Her teammates messed up her flowing hair by dousing her with water.
Sabrina Ionescu, Oregon
How versatile is the Ducks’ sensational sophomore? She already owns the career triple-double record in Division I, and fills the stat line like no other player in the country. After a 28-point NCAA win over Minnesota last week it read: 29 points, seven rebounds, nine assists and three steals. “She’s so much to watch,” said coach Kelly Graves, who compares her to his top player at Gonzaga, Courtney Vandersloot. “And I see what she’s done for our crowds,” Graves said of Ionescu, who averages 22 points and almost eight assists. “They’re coming out because we have a really good team and other good players. But it’s like at Gonzaga, when we started to grow, grow and grow because of Courtney.” The 5-11 Ionescu led Oregon to its best season in school history last year and a surprise appearance in the Elite Eight. Now the Ducks (32-4) are poised for more.
Tinara Moore, Central Michigan
At CMU, it’s all about believing. For coach Sue Guevara it happened four years ago when Moore was a high-schooler. “She could run and she could catch,” Guevara says. “Was she skilled? No.” But the 6-3 Moore had potential, and it’s been fully realized the past two seasons. Both ended with the Moore being named Mid-American Conference Player of the Year, but this one is special because CMU made the NCAAs for the first time in six years. The 11th-seeded Chippewas (30-4) got into the field by beating favored Buffalo in the MAC title game, then knocked off sixth seed LSU and No. 3 Ohio State to make it to Spokane. The biggest reason is Moore, who averaged 21 points and 101/2 rebounds. Also, Moore is ready to stand up for her underdog team. After beating LSU, she sounded off on Twitter: “An upset is solely based off seeding? We are a good basketball team. Give us our recognition. It’s just another basketball game.”
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