BOWLING GREEN, Ky. — Jessica Shepard helped Notre Dame passed its first road test of the season.
She had 19 points and 12 rebounds and the sixth-ranked Irish beat Western Kentucky 78-65 on Tuesday night.
The Fighting Irish (2-0) powered past a Lady Toppers team that received votes in this week’s AP poll. WKU (1-2) beat then-No. 16 Missouri, then took Iowa to overtime on the road last weekend.
“I think just coming into the game we knew it was going to be a tough game,” Shepard said. “We knew we had to come out with a certain level of intensity.”
Notre Dame flexed its frontcourt muscle, outscoring the Lady Toppers 50-32 in the paint. The Irish went to Shepard early and often, allowing her to work against WKU’s front line.
Shepard transferred to Notre Dame this past summer from Nebraska and was granted an NCAA waiver Nov. 1 for immediate eligibility. The 6-foot-4 forward averaged 18.6 points and 9.8 rebounds last year as a sophomore at Nebraska.
“We started the game really trying to find her inside and we were pretty successful,” Irish coach Muffet McGraw said. “We just need to find someone on our team that can get her the ball — huge difference with her.”
Arike Ogunbowale and Mikayla Vaughn scored 21 and 17 points for the four-time defending Atlantic Coast Conference champs. Notre Dame led 37-28 at halftime and then held steady in the second half, stretching the lead to as wide a margin as 73-59 after WKU got as close as 57-51 early in the fourth quarter.
Tashia Brown scored 25 points for the Lady Toppers, but was just 6-for-25 from the field. Fellow WKU senior Ivy Brown, who came in averaging 18.5 points per game, scored just two points in 35 minutes of play Tuesday and eventually fouled out.
“This is what it was about when we made the schedule to see where we’re at as a program and it showed us a lot today and showed us a lot in these past three games, we’re getting close,” Western Kentucky coach Michelle Clark-Heard said. “We’ve just got to continue to keep building and bringing players and that’s our most important thing.”
Notre Dame used a defense-first approach to hold off the upset-minded Lady Toppers. The Fighting Irish held WKU to a 30 percent shooting day from the field, including a 16 percent mark from 3-point range. Notre Dame has held each of its first two opponents to 65 points.
Western Kentucky is a program that’s been to NCAA Tournaments three of the past four years and has played power conference teams tough. WKU stayed within striking distance Tuesday, but had no answer for Notre Dame’s size.
The freshman center Vaughn showed veteran savvy Tuesday, coming off the bench to post her 17 points on 8-of-9 shooting. The 6-foot-3 Philadelphia native also grabbed seven rebounds in her 16 minutes.
Vaughn was a first-team all-state player last season in Virginia, where she finished her prep career.
“Mik did a great job,” Shepard said. “I think she brought a spark for us and went hard to the boards and finished, which is really important.”
HOME COURT ADVANTAGE
WKU drew 5,061 fans Tuesday inside Diddle Arena. That marked the Lady Toppers’ largest home crowd since the 2005-06 season outside of its annual Education Day contests, where thousands of local children bus in to the arena for a game played during school hours.
“Before the game, I thanked Muffet for playing us on our home floor because a lot of people won’t do it,” Clark-Heard said. “I’m really grateful and I think it was a great atmosphere and I think our kids played hard. Just sorry that we couldn’t figure out how to win.”
Notre Dame: will head west Sunday for a battle at No. 17 Oregon State.
Western Kentucky: will play its fourth straight opponent from a major conference to open the season, traveling Friday to Indiana.