He had dreamed of this since he was a little kid, but now that the moment was at hand, he was struggling to control his emotions.
“I was really nervous,” Andy Neff said. “My heart started racing and I had butterflies. I just kept thinking, ‘I didn’t want to screw up.’”
There were just three minutes and 43 seconds left Thursday night in what would end up a 91-52 Wright State rout of the University of Northwestern Ohio – an NAIA Division II school in Lima – when Raiders coach Scott Nagy sent Neff into his first-ever college game.
Halfway up Section 204 in the Nutter Center, Alex Neff – Andy’s twin brother – was one of the first of the dozen or so family members and friends sitting together to see the 6-foot-7 freshman walk-on head out onto the court after a timeout.
This moment was what he, too, had long dreamed of.
“Since third grade they’ve wanted to go to school together,” said Doug Neff, the twins’ father.
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And when it came time for college, Alex and Andy wanted to go to the same place and both play sports there.
They had done that at Oakwood High School, where they both – Alex at 6-foot-4, Andy at nearly 6-foot-8 – stood out. But continuing their side by side athletic careers in college seemed remote since Alex had committed at age 15 to play baseball at Kent State.
At about the same time, Andy, a sophomore starter on the Oakwood basketball team, broke his foot and was sidelined for the rest of the season.
Once healed, he returned and started for the Lumberjacks as a junior and senior – was named third team all-area in Division II this past March — but said he drew little interest from colleges.
Cedarville took a look at him, he said, but only Sinclair Community College actually made an offer.
“I didn’t know what I was going to do,” Andy said.
To facilitate a plan, Alex had de-committed from Kent State, took a look at the Wright State baseball program, loved what he saw and soon was offered a scholarship.
His dad said Alex began to embrace the idea that his twin brother could play basketball at WSU as a walk-on. That’s when Andy said he started sending tapes and videos of his hoops efforts to the Raiders coaches.
When he heard nothing back at first, he feared the plan was kaput.
“Then on graduation night, that would be late May, I got a text,” he said smiling. “It said something like: ‘Hi, I’m Clint Sargent at Wright State. We’ve looked at you and want to know if you will work out with us for a walk-on spot?’”
When WSU called him back after his workout, he showed up with his mom, Nancy, a math teacher at Sinclair.
“They offered him a spot and wondered if would like to go think about it first,” Doug laughed. “Andy told them, ‘No, I’m ready to commit right here.’”
‘He loves those guys’
“We’re basically the same person,” said Alex.
“We’ve been best friends since we were born,” Andy said.
They said their mom dressed them alike when they were young. And even now they still share the same bedroom in their Oakwood home.
“We talk all the time and play video games together and any time we go out, we go with each other,” Andy said. “We’re just very close.
“I could have gone to Sinclair and been just 15 minutes away, but that wouldn’t be the same. It’s good to see my brother every day and talk and laugh.”
Actually, at Wright State he can see older brother Markus, as well. A redshirt senior baseball player at Cedarville, he’s serving an internship with the WSU athletic department this semester.
Yet, just as everything was starting to fall into place, Andy suffered a painful, torn groin muscle during a shooting drill at the Setzer Pavilion in September and wasn’t able to practice until late November.
“I didn’t have surgery, I just tried to wait it out as it healed,” he said. “The first month it was awful. I could barely walk.”
He said his teammates – especially fellow freshman Grant Basile – drove him to class: “I’d leave early, walk slow and take long strides trying not to aggravate it.”
He’d sit on bench in street clothes and to many WSU fans he was a curious figure: Very tall and thin with a pale complexion and a shiny, shaved head.
Thursday was just his second game in uniform, but he thought he – like fellow walk-on Adam Giles and little-used redshirt freshman James Manns – might get in.
“Andy has three goals this season,” Doug said. “He wanted to get a three, he wanted to get a dunk and he wants the team to win the league.
“The main thing though is that he wants to be a great teammate. That’s very important to him. He respects all of them. He loves those guys.”
The bench erupts
The other Raiders players know that and that’s why a few of them – especially seniors Alan Vest and Mark Hughes – sidled up to Andy in the huddle and offered encouragement before he walked out onto the court.
And finally with just over a minute and a half left in the game, Manns – who had scored a career-high eight points himself – spotted him open beyond the three-point arc on the wing and fired a pass to him.
Andy squared up and launched his shot – “When I saw it in the air, I knew it was good,” he said – and watched it snap the net cords for a trey.
As he turned to head up court, he was beaming and beginning to laugh.
On the Raiders bench, players erupted. They jumped up and high-fived and shared their delight. It was the same up in the stands where Alex, his mom and dad and his two sisters – Kylie and Emma – were joined by some of Andy’s high school friends, other relatives and even the Lumberjacks’ former athletics director.
“I can’t tell you how happy we were to see Andy smiling out there,” Doug said. “After all he’s been though, this moment made it all worth it.”
When Andy came off the court at the end of the game — with three points and a rebound now to his name — Vest ran up and gave him a chest bump. Roommate Jaylon Hall playfully shoved his shoulder.
“In the dressing room, guys came up and gave me hugs and high-fives,” he said. “Coach Sargent came over and gave me a big high five.”
Soon text messages and phone calls — from high school friends, his Oakwood coach, his grandma — began to fill up his phone.
“One down, two to go,” his dad said. “He accomplished the first of his three goals….What a great night!”
In a deserted hallway outside the dressing room – after all his teammates had departed – Andy felt the same.
“This was awesome,” he said quietly. “Just fantastic.”
Even better than he’d dreamed it so many years ago.