Brothers Rusty and Justin Moore have shared a love of basketball, and now their hoops bond has grown more powerful.

Rusty, Mullen’s head coach, underwent surgery in February following a brain cancer diagnosis. Now his brother has stepped in to help lead the team as it plays in the Nebraska state basketball tournament. Mullen will be defending its Class D-2 championship and plays its first-round game in Lincoln on Thursday evening.

“I just appreciate everything he’s done,’’ Rusty said. “He’s been awesome.”

Rusty remains head coach, but his brother, who has his share of basketball coaching experience, has taken over the day-to-day coaching duties, working with the team’s assistant.

The brothers grew up on a cattle ranch near Mullen in western Nebraska with a third brother and two older sisters. The boys helped their dad on the ranch, but found time to hunt and fish together and shoot hoops on a concrete slab by the driveway.

Rusty and Justin played high school basketball, but because of their age difference — Rusty is 44 and his brother is 39 — they never played on the same team.

But Justin said he used to love watching his big brother play, and learned a lot by watching the drive and determination he displayed on the court.

Both brothers went into teaching and coaching after college, with Rusty serving the past 14 years as coach at Mullen, 300 miles west of Omaha in the Sand Hills.

Justin served as an assistant for the boys and girls teams at Kearney Catholic before leaving last year to become principal of Mullen Elementary School.

The grade school and high school are just blocks apart in Mullen, so through the season Justin would stop by his brother’s practices and had become familiar with the team.

Luke Christen, a Mullen senior forward, said the brothers share an intensity as coaches, always pushing players to succeed. Both also are encouraging and supportive.

Christen said his coach’s diagnosis has inspired the team.

“It just gives us more drive to win,’’ he said. “Everything we do is for him.”

The first signs of his cancer showed up a few weeks before the coach’s Feb. 12 diagnosis. He began getting headaches , and doctors first thought it was a sinus problem.

But the pain persisted, and a brain scan revealed a tumor. He will start chemotherapy and radiation treatment following the tournament.

The diagnosis was a blow, he said, but the support from his family and the Mullen community has helped sustain him.

He was on the bench Thursday night for Mullen’s 58-49 win over Mead — the team Mullen defeated to win the Class D-2 championship last year — while his brother and the assistant coach ran the game.

Rusty said beforehand he knows his squad will fight and do its best.

And he knows the team is in good hands for the semifinals, where Mullen will face Riverside on Friday night.

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oconnor@owh.com, 402-444-1122