With the season over, you’d think Eastern Washington basketball coach Shantay Legans could relax.
Not so fast – his wife Tatjana is due soon with their second child.
“It’s a boy,” Legans said earlier this week, his voice full of expectation.
Good thing they both played guard in college, because April is coming at the Legans family like a full-court press.
For Shantay, that means juggling home life and recruiting, with little time to reflect on a remarkable first year as head coach.
And what a year it was.
Overcoming every kind of adversity, the Eagles won 20 games, finished third in the Big Sky Conference and came within 15 minutes of the NCAA Tournament.
Legans, a longtime assistant, got his chance almost exactly a year ago, after the departure of Jim Hayford for Seattle.
“A dream come true,” Legans said at the time.
Or was it?
The Eagles also lost Big Sky MVP Jake Wiley, half of their coaching staff and were picked to finish seventh in the conference this year.
“That was a slap in the face,” Legans said.
So was the schedule, which included 10 games and six weeks away from Reese Court. When it ended, the Eagles were 3-8 and banged up, physically and emotionally.
“But they never quit,” said Legans, who lost starting point guard Luka Vulikic after eight games and Jessie Hunt for almost half the season.
Instead, Eastern regrouped and won 17 of its next 22 games before falling to Montana in the finals of the Big Sky Tournament in Reno, Nevada.
The Eagles’ season ended with a loss at Utah Valley in the first round of the College Basketball Invitational, capping a 20-15 season with the program’s fourth straight postseason appearance.
Towering over the landscape of the season was the figure of senior forward Bogdan Bliznyuk, who averaged 21 points while rewriting record books at Eastern, the Big Sky and Division I. The most poignant came on March 3 against Northern Arizona.
On Senior Day at Reese Court, with his family in the stands, Bliznyuk hit two free throws with less than 4 minutes left to set the single-season record for consecutive free throws.
The next week, Bliznyuk became the leading scorer in Big Sky history, but Legans will remember the person and the character.
“His work ethic was amazing,” Legans said. “He was always in the gym.”
With Bliznyuk gone, the Big Sky coaches and media will again be tempted to downplay the Eagles’ chances next year. Bad idea, Legans said.
Back next year is a supporting cast that often looked like much more. Forward Mason Peatling (7.7 points and 5.6 rebounds as a sophomore) will be “the best big in the conference next year,” Legans predicted. He’ll be joined by Hunt, whose ankle injury cost him most of the Big Sky season.
The Eagles will be flush in the backcourt despite the graduation of Sir Washington. Vulikic was sidelined by plantar fasciitis but will be back next year.
In his absence, true freshman Jack Perry became the biggest surprise on the team, averaging 6.8 points, 2.5 assists and taking the ball-handling pressure off Bliznyuk.
The Eagles also return their best outside shooters in Perry (43.1 percent) and seniors-to-be Cody Benzel (41.6 percent) and Ty Gibson (37.2 percent).
“Our talent will be up there with anyone in the Big Sky,” Legans said.
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