On ESPN’s NCAA Women’s Basketball Tournament Selection show Monday night, Kansas State and Drake had to wait a little bit before their teams were announced as tournament participants.
The two programs were two of the last four teams announced to have made the Big Dance. As soon as the names of the school flashed up on the TV screen, one player from each team knew they had to text the other.
They were former Blue Springs High School teammates and current good friends Karyla Middlebrook, who is the starting point guard for No. 7 seed Kansas State, and Lizzy Wendell, who is the star power forward at No. 10 seed Drake University. Soon after the announcement, Middlebrook sent a Snapchat message to Wendell, who will be her opponent in the Lexington bracket, as Drake and Kansas State face off 3 p.m. Saturday at Bramlage Coliseum in Manhattan, Kansas.
“The nerves and the anticipation was just building up, building up,” said Wendell, the Missouri Valley Conference’s Player of the Year for the league and tournament champion Bulldogs. “Then when your (team) name pops up on the screen, you get really excited. Then you kind of settle in about where you’re playing and who you’re playing. I am really excited to be playing her and playing in that location. There’s going to be a lot of fans from Blue Springs, mutual friends. It’s a good location for the both of us.”
Added Middlebrook: “I didn’t even think it could happen until the last couple of weeks of the season when our teams were ranked closely. We’re located next to each other and thought we could be in the same region. I sent her a Snapchat about the same time she sent me a text. We were happy for each other.”
They grew close when they played together as freshmen for Blue Springs and were introduced to each other by a mutual friend. There were certain things they often did while spending time with each other, like eat at Fazoli’s after school or eating candy before a game.
“I remember she ate the Airhead Extreme bites,” said Middlebrook, a transfer from Alabama who averages 9.4 points, 3.2 assists and 3.3 rebounds per game this season for Kansas State. “I wasn’t much of a candy person, but I actually tried those and now those are one of the few candy I actually eat. That’s because of Lizzy.”
There was also some fond memories from the offseason as well.
“Over the summer, we would go to camp at Pitt (Pittsburg) State and one particular year, me, Lizzy and two of our other seniors moved all of our beds into one dorm room and kicked all the freshmen out of those dorm rooms,” Middlebrook said. “That was a lot of fun.
“We would always get candy before bus rides to games,” Middlebrook added. “Lizzy always ate candy before our games. She had to have candy. It was quite funny.”
Added Wendell: “She was just a fun person to be around. We became really good friends and hung out on and off the court.”
They played with other Division I recruits throughout their first three years until the duo became the go-to players for their senior season. In years, prior, they helped the team to three straight state final four appearances.
“Me and her were a couple of the best talents in middle school, so when we went to the same high school, there was a lot of expectations out of us,” Middlebrook said.
While playing together, Middlebrook was the one dishing out assists and Wendell was a knock-down 3-point shooter, leading the Wildcats to another final four berth.
“Everything about our about our senior year was fun,” said Wendell, who leads 20th-ranked Drake with 21.1 points per game (13th best in NCAA Division I) while also averaging 4.5 rebounds and 2.9 assists. “That’s when we were the closest and had the most fun. She was able to find me anywhere on the court.”
Those were the good times. But before that, they were opponents in middle school. Their respective teams played each other a few times in seventh and eighth grade and the duo also butted heads on their AAU teams. Along the way, they made memories.
“We played in the championship game in eighth grade,” Wendell said. “I remember that I broke my nose at the end of the game and Karyla’s team ended up winning. We would always bring that up in high school and laugh about it and talk about it.”
And perhaps they will share that story once more when they play each other Saturday. It’s been seven years since the two Blue Springs standouts have faced off against one another. The last time they saw each other was last summer, according to Wendell.
“We try to keep in contact with other through text,” Wendell said. “It’s been awhile. It will be fun to see her. It will be great to give her a hug and chat a little bit before (the game).”
But once that’s over, it will be all business for Middlebrook and Wendell. After all, a spot in the second round of the tournament will be on the line.
“We’re both definitely going to try to win,” Wendell said. “This is going to be a really good game.”