BOX SCORE

Portland 52 Oxford Hills 43

OH- 7 6 9 21- 43
P- 12 13 10 17- 52

OH- Pelletier 8-3-20, Soehren 4-4-13, Dillingham 1-2-5, Pulkkinen 1-1-3, Shaw 1-0-2

P- W. Donato 4-3-12, Toher 2-5-9, Cross 1-6-8, Girumugisha 2-3-8, P. Donato 3-1-7, Khamis 2-2-6, Kiala 1-0-2

3-pointers:
OH (3) Dillingham, Pelletier, Soehren 1
P (2) W. Donato, Girumugisha 1

Turnovers:
OH- 24
P- 21

FTs
OH: 10-20
P: 20-28

PORTLAND—When Portland’s boys’ basketball team makes the opposition uncomfortable, a victory is usually the end result.

Regardless of the quality of the team on the other side of the floor.

Friday evening at the Portland Exposition Building, the Bulldogs hosted Oxford Hills, one of the Class AA North favorites, and by night’s end, Portland staked its claim as a team to beat as well.

The Bulldogs never trailed as they flustered the Vikings from the opening tip, which resulted in a layup for senior Wani Donato.

Portland forced seven first quarter turnovers as it opened up a 12-7 lead and by halftime, the Bulldogs were up by a dozen, 25-13.

Oxford Hills hoped to make a run in the third period, but couldn’t produce consecutive baskets, and Portland took a 35-22 advantage to the fourth.

There, the Vikings finally made things interesting, getting as close as seven, 47-40, on a pair of foul shots from sophomore Teigan Pelletier, but Donato made a clutch free throw and after a steal from junior Brady Toher, Donato fed his brother, junior Pitia Donato, for a clinching layup and the Bulldogs went on to a 52-43 victory.

Wani Donato paced a balanced attack with a dozen points as Portland improved to 6-2 and in the process, dropped Oxford Hills to 7-3.

“This means that we’re doing some good things and keeping it very simple,” said longtime Bulldogs coach Joe Russo. “We’re working hard, playing 94 feet and having fun. When we do that, it puts pressure on the other team. The teams we’re beating are good, but it’s hard to perform when someone is in your face for 32 minutes. That’s how we have to play.”

Here come the Bulldogs 

After opening with a 42-40 home loss to Lewiston, Portland’s first win came at Bonny Eagle (45-41). The Bulldogs then prevailed at Hampden Academy (63-42), rallied for a 44-41 victory at Cheverus, then downed host Deering, 45-40. A 47-41 home loss to reigning Class AA state champion Edward Little was followed by a nearly two-week hiatus before Portland returned to action Tuesday with an impressive 45-36 home victory over reigning Class AA South champion Thornton Academy.

Oxford Hills, meanwhile, started with a 66-65 home loss to Edward Little, then defeated host Lewiston (60-54), visiting Windham (80-71), visiting Deering (66-53) visiting Hampden Academy (91-68), visiting Noble (67-43), visiting Lewiston (70-63) and visiting Massabesic (68-32) before its seven-game win streak was snapped Tuesday at Edward Little (47-35).

The teams didn’t play during the COVID-shortened 2020-21 campaign. Two years ago, the Bulldogs and Vikings split, with Portland winning at home (56-43) and Oxford Hills returning the favor at home (35-31).

Friday, the Bulldogs did what they needed to do to keep the good times rolling.

It took just six seconds for Portland to go on top, as Wani Donato got to the ball off the opening tip, then raced in for a layup.

Oxford Hills drew even on a bank shot from junior Eli Soehren, but with 5:46 left in the first quarter, a driving layup from Toher put the hosts on top for good.

Wani Donato added a 3 and after senior Colby Dillingham answered with a 3-ball for the Vikings, sophomore Pepito Girumugisha made his presence felt off the bench, converting an old-fashioned three-point play after a steal (layup, foul, free throw), then adding two foul shots.

Sophomore Holden Shaw scored a late layup for Oxford Hills, but after eight minutes, the Bulldogs held a 12-7 lead.

The second period was more of the same.

Wani Donato started the second with two free throws and after a jump shot from Pelletier, sophomore Jeissey Khamis scored four quick points for Portland, first on a layup off a feed from Toher, then with a pair of free throws.

A jumper from Soehren pulled the Vikings within seven at 18-11, but Pitia Donato scored his first points on a floater, senior Jose Kiala scored on a leaner, then senior Spencer Cross added two free throws for a 24-11 lead.

Late in the half, Soehren made two free throws, but a foul shot from Pitia Donato made it 25-13 at halftime.

Wani Donato’s seven points and 13 forced turnovers helped the Bulldogs open it up.

The second half began similarly to the first, as Wani Donato scored on a driving layup.

Pelletier then hoped to spark a run with a layup, but Pitia Donato answered with a bank shot.

After Pelletier made another layup, Toher scored on a putback, Toher stole the ball then set up Cross for a layup, then Cross added a free throw to make it 34-17 with 3:31 remaining in the third.

Soehren stemmed the tide with a 3, but Cross made a free throw.

Pelletier then scored on a putback to draw Oxford Hills within 35-22 heading for the final stanza.

Where Portland did enough to put it away.

Soehren started the fourth quarter with two free throws, but Khamis answered with a putback.

Pelletier then scored on a leaner, but again, the Bulldogs answered, as Girumugisha drained a 3 to stretch the lead to 14.

After two free throws from Dillingham, junior Cole Pulkkinen sank one, but Toher answered with two foul shots to make it 42-29 with 4:15 to go.

A jumper from Soehren and a bank shot from Pulkkinen then made it a single-digit game, but Wani Donato countered by driving for a layup and Cross added two free throws with 2:37 on the clock and the lead was back to 13, 46-33.

The Vikings had one final push, however, as Pelletier scored on a floater, then Pelletier sank a 3.

Pelletier then missed a 3 which could have made things very interesting and with 1:52 left, Toher sank the front end of a one-and-one, but missed the second.

Eleven seconds later, Pelletier was fouled and drained both attempts to make it a seven-point contest, but that’s as close as Oxford Hills would get.

With 1:15 left, Wani Donato made the second of two free throws.

Toher then stole the ball, got it to Donato and Donato set up Pitia Donato for a dagger of a layup and a 10-point lead with 58 seconds remaining.

Ten seconds later, the Vikings scored their final points, on a three-point play from Pelletier, but Toher made one free throw with 24 seconds to go and nine seconds later, Toher hit one more foul shot to put the finishing touches on Portland’s 52-43 victory.

“Our defense and our hustle has been working for us,” Toher said. “We really locked down on defense. Our intensity is at another level. Our offense still needs some work, but our defense is really good.”

“We had to stay calm at the end,” Wani Donato said. “We work on defense a lot in practice.”

“I thought we did two things really well tonight. We rebounded well and we shot free throws and that’s two things we haven’t been doing,” Russo added. “We also played good individual defense. Our hustle made up for some uncharacteristic mental errors. We’re very excited about the victory. The guys give me every ounce of energy in their body and I appreciate that.”

Wani Donato was the lone Bulldog to finish in double digits with 12 points. He also had had seven rebounds and three steals.

Toher made life miserable for Oxford Hills by not only scoring nine points, but also producing six steals, four assists and three rebounds.

“I’m just here to lead the team,” said Toher. “I’m not the biggest player or scorer. I try to get everyone organized. I take pride in my defense and I like to make good passes.”

“All year, Brady takes the other point guard a little out of their game,” Russo said. “He’s quick enough where he can dig out loose balls. He’s our best foul shooter. I love his defense and I love his enthusiasm and I love how he pushes the ball.”

Cross had eight points (and six rebounds), as did Girumugisha, while Pitia Donato finished with seven points, Khamis had six (to go with six boards) and Kiala two.

Portland overcame 21 turnovers in part by making 20 of 28 foul shots. The Bulldogs also enjoyed a 33-25 rebound advantage.

The Vikings got 20 points from Pelletier, 13 from Soehren (who also had five rebounds and three steals), five from Dillingham (who grabbed six rebounds), Pulkkinen three and Shaw two.

Oxford Hills missed 10 of 20 free throws and committed 24 turnovers.

“First half, we played really poorly,” lamented longtime Vikings coach Scott Graffam. “We didn’t execute. You can’t score 13 points in a half and hope to win. We had a bad second half at EL and a bad first half here. Second half, we played really hard. Typical Oxford Hills team, we didn’t give up. We actually had some turnovers at the end, if we could have converted it might have been our game. We’re not a good free throw shooting team. They’re a good defensive team. Our execution was poor and that had a lot to do with it.”

Stakes rising

Oxford Hills (currently ranked fourth in the Class AA North Heal Points standings) returns to action next Friday at home versus Cheverus.

“We’re trying to muddle through,” Graffam said. “We have to get over this little slump. We have five days of practice until our next game. There’s a lot left to play. Our kids are tough. I have seven guys from football (who played in the state game). Mentally, I think we’ll be OK. It’s just a question of executing.”

Portland (second in Class AA North at press time) welcomes Cheverus Tuesday, then plays host to Falmouth next Friday.

“This gives us more energy,” Wani Donato said. “We’ll keep working. We’ll keep playing our game. It feels good to keep winning. We definitely feel confident.”

“We can’t get ahead of ourselves or get complacent,” Toher said. “We have to keep working hard and build on this.”

“It won’t get any easier,” Russo added. “I think these guys can keep getting better, so I stay on them. I don’t want to cheat them out of what they deserve. I’m giving everything I can give to help them succeed. We still need to close out games better.”

Michael Hoffer can be reached at [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter: @foresports.

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