PORTLAND – The quartet of Shantay Legans, Tyler Robertson, Jack Perry and Mike Meadows had been on the cusp of a moment like this before. Twice, actually.
In the 2021 NCAA Tournament, their 14th-seeded Eastern Washington team took third-seeded Kansas to the brink, leading by eight points at halftime in an eventual 94-83 Jayhawks win. In Thursday’s Phil Knight Invitational opener, Legans, Robertson, Perry and Meadows watched a familiar scene unfold for Portland against the top team in college basketball. The Pilots seized momentum from North Carolina in the second half, led the Tar Heels with 4:39 remaining and gave the national runners-up about all they could handle before coming up short, 89-81.
Sometimes it just takes three tries to break through against college basketball royalty.
Whether this particular Villanova team, now 2-4 after six games, deserves that status is a question that still needs to be answered, but Portland continues to gain ground among the programs in its own stratosphere and a marquee 83-71 win over the Wildcats on Friday only validates the school’s decision to bring in Legans from Eastern Washington last season – as well as the decisions of three EWU players who left stable ground in Cheney to join their coach in Portland.
Two of those three, Robertson and Perry, sat on either side of Legans during a postgame news conference at Veterans Memorial Coliseum.
“I brought three guys with me and I brought my two assistant coaches with me, so I felt like we had a great base right from the start,” Legans said. “I love these two guys, I’ve been with them a long time and (Meadows) also. So I knew we had a great base right from the start. So when we were looking at bringing in guys, we wanted to bring in the right guys and guys that would believe we can win right away.”
Robertson, who came off the bench for the Eagles against Kansas two years ago, has been a do-it-all wing for Legans at Portland, scoring 15 points to go with eight assists and seven rebounds in the upset of Villanova. The Melbourne, Australia, native earned West Coast Conference Sixth Man of the Year honors last season and had a 31-point, 11-rebound, 11-assist triple-double during a win over Loyola Marymount.
“I told ‘Legs’ when I first started college that I was going to play with him my whole college career and I’m just glad he got this opportunity and fortunate enough a few of us were able to follow him,” Robertson said. “Would’ve been nice to have a couple more guys from Eastern come with us, but the three of us that did and the assistant coaches, it’s been fun to turn around a program like this.”
Those who’ve followed the rebuild might say it’s happening at an accelerated rate. Just look at where Villanova and Portland were five seasons ago. In 2017-18, the Wildcats won 36 games and beat North Carolina for the national title. The same season, the Pilots won four games in the WCC and went 10-22 overall. Over the next three seasons, Portland went 1-42 in WCC play before swapping Terry Porter for Legans, who led EWU’s program to a 75-49 record over four seasons.
“These guys sitting next to me played in championship games throughout their whole career,” Legans said. “Every single year except for last year, Jack’s been in a championship game. So, you bring over guys like that and you bring in young men that are determined, I think it bleeds over to the other guys.”
Perry, in his sixth college season, gave the Pilots 33 quality minutes Friday, scoring nine points to go with five rebounds and four assists. Another export from Melbourne, Perry played just six games for Portland in 2021-22 before tearing his ACL and missing the remainder of the year. Legans recalls breaking that piece of information to Perry, who’s taken advantage of a medical redshirt and COVID-19 waiver to play one final college season for his longtime coach.
“I’m not a real emotional guy when it comes to crying and stuff, but last year when I heard he was out for the season, it really hit me hard and I had to tell him he was missing the season,” Legans said. “He trusted me to come over and play, so he gave me one more year. I begged him for it. It was down to the last minute, so I begged him and begged him and begged him, and he ended up coming.”
Meadows, who considers Perry and Robertson, or “T-Rob,” two of his best friends, had a similar reaction when he learned about Perry’s setback.
“I did cry when Jack got hurt, man, just because I care about that guy so much and I know Jack doesn’t care about any stat sheet,” Meadows said. “He cares about the ‘W’ or the ‘L.’ Jack is a great teammate, he’s been a great mentor to me and he’s been in college forever it feels like.”
Now it’s Meadows who’s waiting for a green light to get back on the court. A groin injury has sidelined the fifth-year point guard at the PK85, but he’s expecting to return long before the Pilots enter WCC play. On Friday, he was a part of Portland’s loud, frenetic bench mob, which was expending as much energy as the Pilots’ head coach at the end of the second half.
“We echo him. I go as he goes, I go off his energy,” Meadows said of Legans on Friday. “That’s why me and him – I’m his point guard at the end of the day and he was a point guard, so it’s easy to listen to him and play for that guy. You see how energetic he is. He’s awesome, I love Legs.”
For Robertson and Perry, Friday’s feat is difficult to put into words. Both got hooked on college basketball watching programs like Kansas, North Carolina and Villanova in Australia.
“We knew they were a big-time program, big-time team, and so it does wonders for this program and obviously the confidence in our locker room too,” he said.
Moments after the final buzzer sounded, Legans found his son Maksim, lifted the 4-year-old atop his shoulders and paraded around the court.
The Pilots still have a long slate of tough games ahead of them, including Sunday’s PK85 finale against Michigan State or Oregon at Portland’s home venue, the Chiles Center, but Legans knows its important to savor moments like Friday’s.
“If you ever came to one of our games or seen me coach, my kids are always there,” Legans said. “Trying to fight them to stay off the court but at home, at our home court, they’ve everywhere. That’s a great moment, I get to hang out with my son and my daughter, they get to watch it. My daughter takes the losses harder than my son, so I’m glad we win. It’s scary. Her and my wife together after a loss ain’t no fun.”
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