Lincoln Southeast's Jessica Shepard didn't dwell on how close she came to helping her school capture a state title during her freshman season.
Instead, she went out and worked to make herself an even better player.
Shepard, a 6-foot-3 sophomore forward, has helped the 21-3 Knights reach the state tournament again this season. The Nebraska recruit is averaging 24.4 points and 10.5 rebounds, a marked increase from her impressive averages — 18.7 points and 9.2 rebounds — in her first varsity season.
She pushed herself in part because her freshman season ended in heartbreak. Shepard was whistled for a foul away from the ball with 2.4 seconds left in the Class A championship game and a subsequent free throw lifted Omaha Central to a one-point victory and its first title since 1984.
“After we lost that game, I did not feel good,” she said. “I have used it as motivation because in a way I felt it was my fault.”
The last-second setback also remains in the mind of Knights coach Kara Graham.
“I'm not sure I'll ever be able to walk in that arena and not think about it,” she said. “But this is a different team this year and the girls have moved on.”
Southeast began this season ranked No. 1 but fell to Millard West 71-61 in the second game of the year. The Knights have won 20 of 22 since, losing only to Lincoln Southwest and Millard North.
“I've been really pleased with the way we've played defensively,” Graham said. “And the way the girls have shown they can score when Jess is getting double-teamed, which is most of the time.”
Here's the scary part: Despite those 21 wins and Southeast's 27th trip to the state tournament — more than any school, regardless of class — Shepard says the team can get even better.
“I still don't think we've played our best basketball,” she said. “This would be a great time for it.”
In addition to her own personal state tourney motivation, Shepard said she wants the team's four seniors to go out on top. That quartet includes Alexa Kastanek, who grew up playing with Shepard in the Cornhusker Shooting Stars summer program.
“We've been friends since we were little,” Shepard said. “It would be awesome if we could win a championship for Lex and the other seniors.”
In addition to Shepard and Kastanek, who averages 16 points a game, returning guards Alexa Haas and Maddy Everett also have played important roles for the Knights.
“Our team last year had more experience,” Graham said. “But having those four players back has really provided a solid nucleus for us this season.”
Graham knows her team is in for a challenge in its first-round game against Bellevue East at 10:45 a.m. on Thursday at the Devaney Center. The 19-5 Chieftains rely on relentless full-court pressure to force turnovers and create offense.
“They're so deep that they can put that kind of defensive pressure on you all game long,” Graham said. “But our players handle the ball well so we'll need to break that press and get set up in our half-court offense.”
Shepard, who will see more defensive double-teams from state tourney opponents, said she's ready for the challenge.
“If I'm covered like that, I know other players on my team are open,” she said. “We're just going to take it one game at a time and play as hard as we can.”
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