Kansas State’s Will Spradling comes up big in rivalry game

02/11/2014 1:33 PM

02/11/2014 11:46 PM

It was the moment Will Spradling had been waiting for.

Hours after Kansas State defeated Kansas 85-82 on Monday in front of a deafening Bramlage Coliseum crowd, Spradling, a Wildcats’ senior guard, was finally alone with his family at his off-campus apartment. He could be himself.

That wasn’t the case when the game ended, and everyone wanted to know what it meant to him.

He had just played arguably his finest game in a K-State uniform, finishing with 15 points, six rebounds, five assists and three steals, and he had helped the Wildcats beat the Jayhawks for the first time since he was a freshman. As a Sunflower State native, the night seemed to belong to him.

But he refused to admit as much publicly. Spradling, a Shawnee Mission South grad, described the victory as an important step that kept K-State’s Big 12 championship hopes alive, and he didn’t show many emotions. He saved those for later. When they came out, joy filled the room.

“He was feeling good. Real good,” said Spradling’s father, Shannon. “He wanted that win big time, for a lot of reasons, including growing up in a huge area for KU fans like Overland Park and hearing about them all the time.

“I think he was absolutely determined to win that game. Not that he isn’t determined to win every game, but it hit a peak last night. He did not want to lose at all. Last night was something special.”

It was also further validation that Spradling’s recent hot streak may be here to stay. He has averaged 11.7 points, 3.3 assists and 3.1 rebounds in his last six games. Those numbers are up significantly from K-State’s first 18 games, when he lost his shooting touch and averaged 6.9 points.

Some expected his numbers to taper off after a few outings. Instead, they are improving.

“Will struggled a little bit early in the season,” K-State coach Bruce Weber said. “I’m just happy he is on a run now. I hope he has a great finish to his career.”

Spradling’s big night against Kansas featured everything. He sank three three-pointers, including a clutch one in overtime, his passes were perfect on pick-and-roll plays and he even juked KU center Joel Embiid with a crossover that led to a driving layup.

Spradling looked like a new, confident player.

“People were asking me if I was nervous,” Spradling said. “I wasn’t that nervous at all, really, until I got in the gym, and then it’s a little bit different. I came out ready to play, and it was fun.”

So what triggered this recent surge?

Spradling says it started in mid-January, when his father reminded him how successful his college career had been — four years as a starter, three trips to the NCAA Tournament and a Big 12 championship — and what it could still become. With a strong finish, his final chapter could be his best.

“Since then I have been playing with a lot more confidence and playing more aggressive,” Spradling said.

His family agrees that is part of the equation. Spradling is shooting contested shots with more confidence than he attempted open threes a few weeks ago. But the biggest issue may be physical.

Spradling’s father said the injury Spradling suffered at Texas last season — officially described as a bruised sternum — was more severe than previously reported. He said Spradling suffered cartilage damage, and doctors said it could take him months to recover.

“Will told me, ‘I would rather break my nose every game than have that happen to me one more time,’ ” Spradling’s father said. “He didn’t practice the last month of his junior season. He couldn’t sleep in his bed for a while. He slept in a La-Z-Boy.”

That pain lingered into his senior season, and it affected his shooting motion.

But Spradling told his family his chest began to feel fully healed in mid-January — days before his play improved in a return game against Texas.

“He is finally feeling good and really healthy. He is back to himself,” Spradling’s mother, Misty, said. “That’s why he is playing better and better. It’s awesome to watch.”

Spradling’s improvement culminated on Monday with a memorable effort against Kansas. Sure, he had beaten the Jayhawks once before, but never as a major contributor. This time he was one of the most important players on the roster — and one of the best players on the floor.

He hopes that leads to bigger and better things. He hopes he continues to trend upward. He hopes K-State keeps winning. That’s why he kept his composure after the game and stayed focused on what’s next.

But those who know him best insist it was an unforgettable night.

“I hope for him,” Weber said, “he has a memory for a lifetime.”

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