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Perseverance pays for Washington State walk-on Steven Shpreyregin

UPDATED: Sat., Jan. 27, 2018, 9:52 p.m.

Washington State guard Steven Shpreyregin battles for a loose ball as Colorado guard Thomas Akyazili defends in the second half Feb. 12, 2017, in Boulder, Colorado. (David Zalubowski / AP)
Washington State guard Steven Shpreyregin battles for a loose ball as Colorado guard Thomas Akyazili defends in the second half Feb. 12, 2017, in Boulder, Colorado. (David Zalubowski / AP)

PULLMAN – Steven Shpreyregin is a bit reluctant to admit it, but the Washington State guard hasn’t discarded every piece of purple fabric that hung in the closet of his childhood home.

The Husky pullovers and T-shirts are still there – “they’re hidden” Shpreyregin offers, and he promises, “I haven’t brought them out.”

Proximity to the University of Washington’s Seattle campus nurtured Shpreyregin’s early affection for the Huskies, but the WSU senior has worked exceptionally hard to be a Cougar.

After spending two seasons playing junior college basketball at Skagit Valley College in Mount Vernon, Washington, Shpreyregin vowed to fulfill a lifelong dream of playing Division I hoops – some way, some how – and offered his walk-on services to Ernie Kent and the Cougars before the 2016-17 season.

That was never part of the long-term plan for someone who, growing up, fell on the purple side of the Evergreen State’s basketball rivalry. He knew just about every square inch of Alaska Airlines Arena – the gym he and his friends often sneaked into as young boys and the same one that will host Shpreyregin’s Cougars at 5 p.m. (ESPNU) on Sunday.

Shpreyregin was an avid follower of the UW teams coached by Lorenzo Romar, who was at the Huskies’ helm for 15 years before being fired after the 2017 season. In a roundabout way, that also gave Shpreyregin an early introduction to the man who years later would present him with his only opportunity to play basketball in the Pac-12.

“I used to go to all the UW games and it was a year they were really good and they were playing an Oregon team with coach Kent,” Shpreyregin said. “And they were winning all their games and I was like, they were going to kill Oregon.”

But the Ducks were flying at a speed that few in college basketball could match. That night, the Huskies didn’t have the stamina to keep up.

“Coach Kent’s team came running the same offense he wants us to run,” Shpreyregin said. “Run and gun. And they just killed UW. I was like, ‘Dang, it would be awesome to play for that coach.’ ”

But Shpreyregin was a lightly recruited guard out of Nathan Hale High School, who, despite being a 10th-leading scorer of the highly competitive Metro League his senior season, didn’t attract many Division I suitors and lacked scholarship offers from the state’s prominent basketball schools.

Perhaps Shpreyregin’s prep career came a few years too early. That or Nathan Hale’s instant rise to national prominence came a few years too late.

“A couple years earlier if B-Roy was there, it would’ve been awesome,” Shpreyregin said.

The “B-Roy” Shpreyregin’s referred to is Brandon Roy, the ex-Portland Trail Blazer and Garfied High/UW alum who was hired to coach the Nathan Hale Raiders last season, and brought in a crop of elite transfers headlined by the nation’s top recruit, Michael Porter Jr.

Shpreyregin’s Hale teams hovered around the .500 mark – “we would go to districts and lose to top-tier teams,” he said – but a few his younger teammates were still around last season, when Roy, Porter and an assembly of all-stars teamed up to deliver a State 3A championship to the Raiders, who went undefeated and were ranked No. 1 in most national high school polls.

Shpreyregin followed the story from the other side of the state, where he was still trying to establish himself as a Cougar without many of the perks a scholarship player might take for granted.

“The big thing is the stipend,” Shpreyregin said. Scholarship athletes receive a monthly sum to cover living expenses. Walk-ons foot all of those bills on their own.

“You don’t get that,” he said. “So it kind of sucks when everyone’s getting that check to pay and then you’re like … dang.”

“Most walk-ons come into programs, and regardless of what you can tell them as a head coach, they’re going to feel like they’re the low man on the totem pole with all the other scholarship players around them,” Kent said. “And that’s a mental thing you have to go through. To really compete every day and realize you can compete at this level.”

In most cases, walk-ons are used sparingly throughout a season – in “garbage time” of blowout wins or losses, or in times of dire need. The Cougars faced the latter in a neutral-site game against Kansas State last season.

Illness precluded forward Jeff Pollard and guard Viont’e Daniels from playing in the game and WSU’s six-man bench was trimmed to three when it was announced sharpshooter Derrien King had left the program that same day.

Kent pulled his walk-on from the bench in the first half and Shpreyregin logged 10 minutes in his D-I debut. He made a 3-pointer in the second half, finishing with three points and one rebound. Shpreyregin played in eight more games as a junior and logged a season-high 13 minutes against Utah.

“Dream come true,” Shpreyregin said. “… It’s been really awesome. It’s just shown that my hard work has paid off that I got trusted to go into games, in key moments of the game. Just help out the team.”

His perseverance was rewarded earlier this season with a gift Shpreyregin never saw coming.

One day before the Pac-12 opener versus UCLA, Kent sang the praises of his walk-on during a team meeting.

“Quite frankly, it’s killing me that you can’t play,” Kent said of Shpreyregin, injured at the time. “Because he’s been better than some of you guys that are on full-ride scholarships. He’s giving me more on a day-to-day basis than you guys are giving me, which in return, because we have a scholarship to give, I’m going to reward you with a scholarship.”

A video posted by WSU assistant Ed Haskins shows an elated Shpreyregin being swarmed and mobbed by his Cougars teammates.

“It was just super surreal,” Shpreyregin said. “I didn’t even process it until later when I told my parents.”

Shpreyregin’s played sparingly this season, but Kent calls him one of the team’s “more competitive” and “smarter” players.

“He now gets an opportunity to work through some things here in our program to pay for those things himself,” the WSU coach said.

Part two of the WSU-UW rivalry takes place Sunday in Shpreyregin’s neighborhood. It’s the last time he’ll return home as an opponent of the program he grew up supporting, but the first time he’ll do so as a scholarship player.

“Going back to a gym I grew up five minutes away from,” Shpreyregin said, “it’s really awesome.”

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