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Aisha Sheppard becomes 'face' of Virginia Tech women's basketball

Aisha Sheppard becomes 'face' of Virginia Tech women's basketball


Aisha Sheppard fell in love at an early age.

With basketball.

“I fell in love with it when I was very young,” the Virginia Tech senior off-guard said in a phone interview. “I saw an orange ball and I figured out how to shoot it and I just ran from there.”

When her mother would drop by Sheppard’s elementary school to surprise her with an offer to have lunch together, she would find Sheppard outside, playing basketball with the boys.

“So she knew that was something I was going to be in love with, and to this day it’s the greatest thing that’s ever happened to me,” Sheppard said. “Basketball has always been my first love.”

Sheppard’s shooting touch made her a standout.

She has made a school-record 289 3-pointers in her Tech career. She ranks second in Division I with 70 3-pointers this season.

Sheppard, who averages a team-high 19.1 points, has helped put the Hokies on track for their first NCAA tournament berth in 15 years.

“She’s one of the best guards in the country,” ACC Network analyst LaChina Robinson said. “Hopefully, with Virginia Tech looking like they’re going to make the NCAA tournament, she will be in the spotlight during March Madness. I just hope people get to see how special of a player she truly is.”

Sheppard also shines off the court. She graduated from Tech last summer and is now pursuing a master’s degree.

She has also used social media to speak out against racial injustice.

“She’s going to be able to run for president one day — she’s so smart,” Hokies coach Kenny Brooks said. “She’s a great face for the program — her social justice initiatives, everything that she stands for, it’s a wonderful person to have in the front of your program. A great role model.”

‘Unwavering confidence’

Sheppard, who grew up in Fairfax County, was raised by her mother, Darlene Sheppard.

“She’s been there for every trip, every away game,” Sheppard said.

Sheppard has become close to her father, Rickey Carr, in recent years.

“When I was growing up, he wasn’t around as much. But our relationship is much better now,” she said. “We’ve actually become extremely close, to the point where we talk every day.”

Darlene Sheppard did not want Aisha to become a basketball player.

“I thought she was going to be my second cheerleader, because my oldest daughter was a cheerleader,” said Darlene Sheppard, an administrative assistant at W.T. Woodson High School.

But Sheppard — whose first name is pronounced Asia, like the continent — saw her two older brothers playing basketball and wanted to play, too.

When Sheppard was 10 years old, her mother not only signed her up for a girls’ rec-league team but also for a boys’ rec-league team.

“One of the refs … said, ‘She’s killing these boys. You need to take her over to the AAU side,’” Darlene Sheppard said.

Sheppard developed a knack for shooting the ball.

“I would just get in the gym and shoot 3s,” she said. “I fell in love with that shot.”

She verbally committed to Tech the summer before her senior year at St. John’s College High School in Washington, D.C.

Sheppard had caught Brooks’ eye when he was the coach at James Madison. Five months after Brooks left JMU for Tech, Sheppard picked the Hokies over Louisville, Syracuse, Virginia and Dayton, among others.

“As soon as I got here, she was the first person we zeroed in on,” Brooks said. “I talked to her about, ‘We’re going to change the culture. We’re going to change the narrative about Virginia Tech women’s basketball.’ I told her she was the person that was going to help me turn it around.”

Sheppard was named a USA Today third-team All-American as a senior, when she led St. John’s to the Washington Catholic Athletic Conference crown.

“Her mechanics are fantastic, but her fearlessness is just unconscious,” St. John’s coach Jonathan Scribner said. “She has unwavering confidence.”

Patience pays off

Sheppard made 76 3-pointers as a Tech freshman, setting a school single-season freshman record that was eclipsed the following year by then-Hokie Dara Mabrey.

Sheppard averaged 8.3 points as a freshman and 7.4 points as a sophomore. She was mainly a backup those years, when then-Hokie Taylor Emery was shining at off-guard.

“When she got here, she was very, very talented. … She didn’t understand the system yet,” Brooks said. “She was patient.

“When she was ready, which was last year, she took advantage of the opportunity.”

Sheppard averaged a team-high 14.8 points last season, when she sank a school-record 84 3-pointers and started every game. She was named to the All-ACC second team by a panel of coaches, media members and sports information directors.

“I saw the game slow down,” Sheppard said. “I started to kind of see things happen before they happen.

“The time that I did spend on the bench and watching film … really helped me develop into the player that I am now.”

The Hokies went 21-9 overall and 11-7 in ACC play last year, finishing with a winning ACC record for the first time. They were a safe bet to receive an at-large bid to the NCAAs, but the tournament was canceled because of the coronavirus pandemic.

“It’s still something that I think about. It’s very tough to swallow,” Sheppard said. “Hopefully this year there will be an NCAA tournament.”

Swan song?

The Hokies (11-7, 6-7) are on a four-game winning streak. ESPN’s Charlie Creme projected Tech as a No. 9 seed in his latest “bracketology” prediction Tuesday.

“Aisha is the leader,” Robinson said. “This is her team and she has responded to that pressure to step up and show her leadership in big moments.”

Sheppard ranks second in the ACC in scoring (19.1 ppg), just one spot ahead of Tech center Elizabeth Kitley (18.9 ppg).

“This season we’re seeing the variety of ways that [Sheppard] can get 3s, whether she is using screens, … coming down in transition, creating her own shot off the bounce,” Robinson said. “She’s just really crafty.

“And teams are always taking away the 3, so she’s getting to the rim.”

Sheppard ranks second in Division I in both 3-pointers (70) and 3-pointers per game (3.89).

“Her mannerisms … mimic men’s players or NBA players, … coming off of screens, handling the basketball, shooting with people in her face,” Brooks said. “With her, I can run plays that I could see Steph Curry or Damian Lillard execute.”

Sheppard broke the Tech record for career 3-pointers in a Jan. 24 loss at North Carolina State. Vanessa Panousis held the old mark of 269.

“As a senior, I really understand what my shot is and how to fix it when I may be missing a couple in a row,” Sheppard said.

She showed that ability on Jan. 28 when the Hokies knocked off then-No. 2 N.C. State in overtime — the biggest win in the program’s history.

Sheppard had no points at halftime, but she finished the game with 28 points. Eighteen of those points came in OT.

“Not scoring in the first half didn’t deter me,” Sheppard said. “You just have to trust the work that you put in.”

For the past month or so, Sheppard has been spending about 10 minutes a game at point guard. That gives freshman point guard Georgia Amoore the chance to play on the wing.

“Georgia’s been able to see the game from a different angle with Shep running the point,” Brooks said. “And then Shep’s a little bit more dangerous with the ball in her hand.”

Robinson expects Sheppard to be chosen in this year’s WNBA draft — if she enters the draft, that is.

This might not be Sheppard’s final season at Tech.

The NCAA Division I Council has granted all of this school year’s Division I winter-sports athletes an extra year of eligibility. So Sheppard could come back next season.

“I don’t want to look too far ahead,” she said.

Brooks said he and the 5-foot-9 Sheppard talk constantly about whether or not she should turn pro after this season.

“I talk to WNBA people regularly, just trying to see where her stock is,” he said. “They like her a lot. I don’t think anybody’s going to tell her she needs to come back for another year.

“[But] you don’t want to forego an opportunity to be able to come back just for being a third-round pick and maybe have a week or two [in a WNBA camp] to showcase what you can do.

“If she does come back and she gets [point guard] a little bit more under her belt, she’ll be more and more attractive to the WNBA. At her size, she needs to be able to be a dual threat and not just a shooter.”

Graduate student

Sheppard is as determined off the court as she is on it.

She graduated last summer with a bachelor’s degree in multimedia journalism after only three years of college.

“Once I figured out I could, nothing was going to stop me,” she said. “I definitely wanted to be able to graduate in three years to have the opportunity to get my master’s.”

She plans to graduate in August with a master’s degree in leadership studies.

Sheppard has also become an advocate for social justice.

The killing of George Floyd in late May sparked nationwide protests against police brutality. Darlene Sheppard said Floyd was her first cousin.

Aisha not only marched with her mother in Washington, D.C., in the wake of Floyd’s death, but she also posted a lengthy statement on her Twitter and Instagram accounts in early June.

“As a young African-American woman in our society today, I fear I will have to settle for the rest of my life,” she wrote. “Settle for disrespect, injustice, racism, brutality and systematic oppression. … We are Black, we are beautiful and we are tired of settling. Our time is now! … Black lives matter and equality is necessary.

“To my cousin, George, although I was never able to meet you, I know you were loved, and you are beginning to change this ugly world.”

Sheppard said she is excited for “the things that we’ll overcome as a community.”

“Our lives do matter,” she said.

She sees basketball as a platform to support “my people and the struggles that we go through.”

“[It’s] to be able to show little girls, little Black girls … that you can make an impact if you just believe in yourself,” she said. “Keep going, no matter what obstacles may come your way.”

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Mark Berman covers Virginia Tech men’s basketball and many other teams at the university. He also helps cover other colleges, including Radford, VMI, Roanoke, Washington and Lee and Ferrum.

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