Paudie O'Connor Cup final: The Address UCC Glanmire v DCU Mercy National Basketball Arena, Tallaght, Sunday. Tip off: 5.20pm - Live on TG4
Despite leading the Superleague and reaching Sunday's big throw-down with arch-rivals DCU Mercy, The Address UCC Glanmire have had an unusually high turnover of professional imports this season.
Tierney Pfirman is their fifth pro signing and Sunday's Paudie O'Connor Cup final marks only her second game.
Yet the one who has stayed longest has possibly defied the most odds.
When Carrie Shephard (27) first heard she'd got a Division One college scholarship she exclaimed: "What? Little small-town me?"
She once scored 51 points in a schools' game and, in 2014, was voted the best high school player in Missouri by the state's coaches' association
There were only 46 people in her high school class in Steele, Missouri. “The town sign says 2,000 people but I have never seen 2,000 people in our town.”
Then there is her stature: a veritable Bonsai in a sport populated by Sequoias.
“I’m actually 5ft 3in but I give myself an extra inch ‘cause I consider myself pretty strong,” she grins.
Money was so scarce when she was little that she learnt on a bare rim that her birth father Steve fished out of a dumpster and nailed to a tree in the backyard.
Mastering a backboard came much later at the local park where she played mostly with boys and men.
She once scored 51 points in a schools’ game and, in 2014, was voted the best high school player in Missouri by the state’s coaches’ association.
A woman at her church picnic first put her in touch with Charles Williams who she calls "the main father figure in my life."
The AAU, a youth sports system you could liken to the Community Games, puts regional teenage talent together in hand-picked teams to play in tournaments all across America.
It is a massive showcase for small-town players who don’t get scouted in high school and Williams was her AAU coach.
Playing AAU resulted in a scholarship with the University of Missouri (‘Mizzou’) but a bad stress fracture in her shin meant she only played 28 games in her first two years.
Then her mother Edna’s health deteriorated badly.
Shephard, the youngest of four, was particularly close to her so switched to Southeast Missouri State (Semo), a lower-ranked Division One college but just 75 minutes away from home compared to the five-and-a-half hour drive to Mizzou.
She was hampered by injury again in her second year when her mum also had a serious stroke.
Yet in her final year, when she was co-captain, Semo won their conference (Ohio Valley) 25-7 and clinched early qualification to the NCAA playoffs for the first time in seven years.
Within a week their hearts were broken. Covid wiped out the 2020 “March Madness”. They never even got to take to the floor at the Big Dance.
After graduating with a BA in marketing and a Master’s degree in education Shephard worked in local gyms and cared for her mother while her agent chased up pro jobs.
Glanmire coach Mark Scannell actually tried to sign her two years ago but "couldn't afford her because there was talk of her going to Spain."
She signed a contract to play for Ballarat in Australia in April 2021 but Covid also dashed that as she narrowly missed the only two-week window open to fly in.
Two months later her mum died.
If her life journey hadn’t taken so many dramatic turns the all-action point-guard probably wouldn’t be in Cork right now, living in The Avenue (the team’s hotel sponsor), being wowed by the kindness of teammates and strangers and repaying them with her phenomenal work-rate on and off court.
The game's still the same and if I can beat the guy growing up why can't I teach the guy? What Becky Hammon was doing with the Spurs was huge
It’s her ability to vary her game, to empower others while knowing when to step up herself, that has most impressed Scannell.
Her big dream is to become an assistant coach, focused on player and skill development. Becky Hammon, the first woman to become a full-time assistant coach in the NBA (since gone to a head coach job in the WNBA) provides inspiration.
“The game’s still the same and if I can beat the guy growing up why can’t I teach the guy? What Becky Hammon was doing with the Spurs was huge.
“It’s no big deal for a male to coach females in college basketball so why not a female coaching males? I think it will come whenever people realise that game is game.
“Okay a woman may not dunk but her skill and her discipline can still give you the same results. You can dunk all day long and still lose if you don’t have the basketball IQ.”
Shephard was playing in the “She’s Got Game” league in Memphis, at weekends, when she got the call from Glanmire, three games into the Superleague and four months after her mother’s death.
She’d never left America before and brought over no photographs of her mother in case she mislaid them but arrived wearing a necklace with a copy of Edna’s fingerprint on it.
She lost it recently and before the Cup semi-final teammate Claire Melia, who lost her own mother last September, quietly slipped her a gift; Shephard's four favourite photos of her mum in a picture-frame.
Game-day prep always includes some Bible reading but have all the tough breaks not shaken her belief?
“No ma’am, it’s the faith that gives me hope,” she insists.
“If someone was to ask me ‘how’d you get here? I’d say (through) ‘nobody but God!’ Because (otherwise) you cannot tell me that a 5ft 3in player from a small town in the middle of nowhere gets to be where I am today.”