Thursday’s exhibition between the Huskers and Wayne State put the game of basketball in the state of Nebraska on the big stage of Pinnacle Bank Arena. The two rosters included nine players from within the state’s borders, and all nine of them saw action in the 75-40 win by the Huskers.
“I think the cool part about tonight, really, for me, was after the game doing the radio, looking at all the Wayne State kids and 150 people in their crowd hanging around, taking pictures with some of the Husker kids and some of the Wayne people that are students or whatever that know some of our guys,” Coach Tim Miles said. “That’s why you play these games. Yeah, you want to win and yeah, you want to get organized. But that’s the cool part about being able to play these games.”
For many of those local products, Thursday’s game also served as a reunion of sorts as most of them played with and against each other throughout high school, and the history shared by two players in particular goes back even farther than that.
Brady Heiman, a 6-foot-11 freshman center for Nebraska, and Nate Thayer, a 6-foot-3 freshman guard for Wayne State, have played together since third grade. They both starred at Platteview High School in Springfield, leading the Trojans to a 74-28 (.725) record with three state tournament appearances as four-year starters. Heiman is Platteview’s all-time leader in rebounds and blocked shots while Thayer is the school’s all-time leader in points and assists.
Thursday was the first time the two have played against each other in an organized game since a recreational league in fourth grade. Wayne State’s coaching staff was very familiar with Thayer’s shared history with the Nebraska big man.
“On our scouting report, our assistant coach, Andy [McMahon], he wrote ‘Bigs ask Thayer for scouting report,’ in parentheses, ‘high school teammate,’” Thayer said. “I think most of them knew him.”
On Thursday, both players came off the bench and made an impact for their teams. Heiman finished with nine points on 3-of-6 from the field and 3-of-5 from the foul line, eight rebounds (including five offensive) and two blocks. Both players said it was a little strange but also really cool to square off against each other.
“It was good,” Thayer said. “He’s bigger, a lot bigger. He’s like 215, something like that. He was like 190 when we graduated high school so that’s unreal. He’s big, he rebounds well.”
Heiman said the two were joking a bit at the free-throw line after both of them checked in for the first time. Heiman said he didn’t bust out any of the trash talk assistant coach Armon Gates has been trying to teach him, though; most of their talk was more self-deprecation than anything.
Heiman admitted that he was a bit nervous when he took the court for the first time, and it showed as he got the ball on his first offensive possession and blew the bunny. However, he grabbed his own rebound and put it in for his first points at Pinnacle Bank Arena as a Husker.
Heiman finished a little more strongly in the second half, throwing down a two-handed slam.
“It was good to get the first one down,” Heiman said. “Hopefully there are many more to come.”
As for Thayer, he finished with two points, three rebounds and an assist. Wayne State was only outscored by four points in his 11 minutes on the court, the best plus-minus on the team.
Heiman and Thayer weren’t the only teammates who faced off on Thursday, however. Wayne State’s Jordan Janssen, a freshman forward from Lincoln East, and Nick Ferrarini, a freshman guard from Millard North, played with both Heiman and Thayer during the summer for the Omaha Sports Academy Crusaders. Nate Mohr, a guard from Glenwood, Iowa, who played first with Team Nebraska Express and then with Omaha Elite during the summer, rounds out Wayne State’s freshman class. Thayer said the transition to college basketball has been eased because of the players’ familiarity with each other.
“I think just the social aspect, and they know how you play, especially because we have four guys on our team,” Thayer said. “There are just a lot of times at open gyms this fall where it’d be like Me, Nick, Jordan, Nate and then Vance [Janssen] on a team, and since we all knew how to play with each other we’d play well.”
Jordan Janssen started in the middle for the Wildcats, grabbing a team-high eight rebounds and scoring two points. He also won the tip against Nebraska junior Isaiah Roby. Janssen said he asked Roby to let him win, but Roby told him no. The 6-foot-7 Janssen beat the 6-foot-8 Roby regardless.
The connections don’t end there, however. Vance Janssen (no relation to Jordan) is a senior point guard for Wayne State and a native of Blair. Johnny Trueblood is a redshirt junior guard for Nebraska who played his high school ball at Elkhorn South. The two squared off in high school a few times then teamed up during the summer for the Crusaders.
“It was awesome, just going from high school, not rivals, but playing against him all the time and then being AAU teammates and back to it, playing against each other was a lot of fun,” Trueblood said. “We got the chance to guard each other so that was even more fun.”
Vance Janssen started and played 31 minutes for Wayne State. He hit a 3-pointer early in the game to put the Wildcats up 3-2 — he said he was “pumped” when the shot went down — then knocked down a pull-up jumper later on with her former teammate guarding him. Trueblood played nine minutes, knocking down a 3-pointer right in front of the Wayne State bench and snagging three rebounds. He also blew by Janssen on a baseline drive right after Janssen hit that jumper on him.
“He came at me when I just came off the bench, I was a little tight and he just comes right at me and hits a pull-up in my face,” Trueblood said. “So I just came down the floor the next time and drove left, and he tripped so I kind of got him back a little bit.”
Trueblood missed the shot over a rotating help defender but grabbed the rebound and kicked it back out.
The game had a little extra significance for Janssen. He and Trueblood kept in touch, talking from time to time, but Janssen had been keeping an eye on the Huskers over the last few years for another reason.
“I’m a Husker basketball fan, so it was kind of odd,” Janssen said. “I guess on all our bus trips I bring a blanket on the bus, a Husker blanket. I didn’t bring it this time; I didn’t want to do that. I talk to Johnny every once in a while so it was kind of fun to play against him, maybe one last time and see him again.”
Janssen said it was his dream as a little kid to one day play for Nebraska.
“It’s kind of ironic that my last, senior season I get to play at Pinnacle Bank against the Huskers,” Janssen said.
Wayne State has three seniors on its roster and Janssen is the only local one. He said he’s really embraced the leadership role in his final season of basketball. Thayer called him “unreal.”
“So there’s the four freshmen on our team and they hang out with us a lot,” Janssen said. “I think I have a big leadership role for them to carry on the culture we have with our coach here. One of my big jobs this year is just getting them ready for next year and kind of keeping the program going. I think we should have a pretty good season this year, and if that can carry over to the next couple years I feel like I would have done a good job.”
Once the season is over, Janssen will be free to bring his Husker blanket wherever he wishes. He’s already been accepted into pharmacy school at the University of Nebraska Medical Center.
The final former OSA Crusader in Thursday’s game was Justin Costello, a walk-on guard for the Huskers from Elkhorn South. Costello redshirted last year at Nebraska and did not suit up for the team’s exhibition game against Northwood, making Thursday his Nebraska debut.
Costello checked in late and knocked down his first shot, a tough fallaway mid-range jumper that just beat the shot clock buzzer.
“That was awesome,” said Trueblood, who played with Costello in high school and led the Storm to a Class B State title with him on the Pinnacle Bank Arena floor in 2015. “That was really cool to see. He’s been putting in a lot of work with our coaches and just before and after practice he’s always shooting. He works really hard at his game and his shot and that’s his specialty. I was really happy for him.”
Bob Franzese, the general manager for Omaha Sports Academy who coached all of the former Crusaders besides Costello, was in the crowd for the game.
“I’m very proud of each of those guys,” Franzese said. “They’ve all worked very hard and have overachieved. It was fun and really one of the more fulfilling basketball games I’ve probably ever watched. Just kind of watching the kids and their demeanors, I can tell you I miss coaching all of them.”
Just like Thayer, Franzese couldn’t help but notice the physical strides Heiman has made since the end of his high school career.
“I thought Brady played really hard,” Franzese said. “He does look noticeably stronger and in talking to Cody Levinson who really mentors Brady, gaining weight and being serious in the weight room has been a huge priority. I think Brady’s a competitor. From the time he’s been 15 years old, he’s played against the best players in the country. There will be an adjustment period playing against 20- and 21-year-olds, but my guess is when they get into the thick of the Big Ten I think he can be a great role player and contributor for those guys.”
Heiman has a good mentor to learn from at Nebrask ain senior center Tanner Borchardt, a Gothenburg product who made the team through a walk-on tryout, reshaped his body and earned a scholarship last season. Borchardt finished with two points and seven rebounds in 17 minutes and is set to be Nebraska's first big man off the bench.
Rounding out the local players in the game is Nosa Iyagbaye, a 6-foot-9 center who played his high school ball for former Nebraska quarterback Garth Glissman at Lincoln Parkview. Iyagbaye is a native of Nigeria who moved to Lincoln when he was 14 years old. He redshirted last season for Wayne State.
Vance Janssen said he was happy to see all of his fellow Nebraskans get a chance to share the same floor in front of a big crowd.
“It’s exciting,” Vance Janssen said. “There’s a lot of potential for Nebraska high school players in this state. Even the kids who go D-II, it’s competitive basketball and it’s not what a lot of people think.”
After the game, Wayne State coach Jeff Kaminsky opened his press conference by thanking Miles for the opportunity for his program. Thursday was the second in-state Division I exhibition game in three years for the Wildcats as they took on Creighton in 2016.
“Playing Nebraska is about as good as it gets for our local guys,” Kaminsky said. “When it comes to Nebraska and Creighton, those games are about as good as it can get for a kid that grew up in Nebraska. Maybe their dream was of playing here and not to do that, to have a chance to play against them in this arena is special. We have 13 guys on our roster and 10 of them are either from Nebraska or Iowa so we do have a lot of local contingency. Obviously, we have four freshmen, three from Nebraska and one from Glenwood, so basically we count that as Nebraska. It was a really good opportunity, a fun opportunity for them.”
Jacob is in his third year with Hail Varsity covering Husker athletics. He has also written extensively for SB Nation’s Bright Side of the Sun and The Creightonian. His love of basketball can best be described as an obsession and if you need to find him, he’s probably in a gym somewhere watching, coaching or playing hoops.