Some players cling to the spotlight and others are thrust into it. Through all the lawsuits and controversy last season for the women’s basketball team, there was one bright light. Aiya Shepard was named second team All Conference USA, while averaging 17.9 points per game for a Bulls’ team that went 4-24.
“This season will be a lot better so watch out for us,” Shepard said. “Don’t discount us because of last season, since we were 4-24, because we’re a new team now. We’ll be ready to play every day.”
Shepard was one of the few players who came to play every game a year ago. En route to earning All C-USA second team honors, Shepard scored single digits just four times out of the 27 games she played. Eleven times Shepard topped the twenty-point plateau.
“I don’t like to be depended on,” Shepard said. “It’s a big release knowing that the pressure is off this season.”With the influx of four freshmen and transfer Sonia Cotton, plus the return of Dione Smith, the Bulls will be far less reliant upon Shepard’s scoring prowess.
“Last year, we could have beat a lot of teams, we just didn’t have a lot of scoring power,” Shepard said. “(This year), we’re quick and we have more than the five starters who can score. Everyone on our bench can score. Everyone can shoot the three, even our post players can shoot the three. It’s good because they all have talent and they’re contributing right away, so I think that’s real good. Just look at all those things and we’ll do real good.”
An improvement in the win-loss column would be a big relief off the shoulders of the soft-spoken native of Palestine, Texas. In the Lone Star State, USF’s junior guard was named to the Class 3A All-State team in high school. Even there, Shepard was the go-to player, averaging 27.8 points a game during her senior season.
However, USF coach Jose Fernandez hopes that his new run-and-gun offense will take some of the pressure off Shepard. Some fast break points from the full-court trap wouldn’t hurt either.”Offensively, it doesn’t matter who we’re playing, we want to be up-tempo,” Fernandez said. “Get the ball up the floor, clear the backcourt in four seconds, make sure that we’re setting good screens and we’re unselfish. We’re penetrating, kicking, getting good shots out of our offense. Defensively, we’ve got to put a lot of good pressure on the ball, make sure our rotations are good.”
Shepard, like many of her teammates, favors Fernandez’s switch to the fast-paced terror of the full-court press. And she isn’t afraid of a little competition from freshmen like Alana Tanksley and Jen Kline.
“I like (the competition),” Shepard said. “It makes you work harder and I’ve made a big improvement from last year because I’ve had to work harder for my position. I like competition.”Shepard isn’t the only one who thinks the Bulls’ star has made strides during the summer.
“Aiya Shepard has worked unbelievably hard in the off-season,” Fernandez said. “A lot of people don’t know how good we’re going to be, but we return Aiya Shepard, and Sonia Cotton sitting out and our freshmen …”
Still, even with all the numbers and the chance to improve upon them this season, Shepard has her goals in order, and the team comes first.
“That’s our biggest goal (to go to the postseason),” Shepard said. “Our main goal is to win a conference championship and to show people that we can win games and we’re not the same team that people are expecting us to be.”
Shepard for one thinks that the Bulls’ chances of ending their 29-year playoff drought are very realistic. That doesn’t mean the career 42.1 percent field goal shooter doesn’t have some personal aspirations. Even though Shepard is the second highest returning scorer in C-USA, trailing only UAB’s Deanna Jackson, she didn’t make the coaches’ vote for preseason first team
All-Conference. In addition, Shepard was the conference leader in steals per game, averaging .5 more than second place Sara Nord of Louisville. Shepard also finished in C-USA’s Top 10 in free throw percentage last year at 73.6 percent.”In a way, yes, I do feel (slighted),” Shepard said of her absence from first team All C-USA. “But, I know I can make the first team.”
- Anthony Gagliano covers women’s basketball and can be reached at email@example.com