PORTLAND—After a sloppy Opening Night loss at Lewiston, longtime Portland boys’ basketball coach Joe Russo opined that it would be a long time before his team won a game.

Instead, the Bulldogs haven’t lost since.

Thursday evening at the Portland Exposition Building, Portland got pushed hard by rival Deering, which played blissfully unaware of its surroundings, but the Bulldogs made the necessary plays in the second half to continue their win streak.

Any delusions of an easy Portland victory were dispelled in the first quarter, when the Rams weren’t fazed by playing on the big stage and instead, thrived, taking a 10-9 lead on a late bank shot from sophomore Justin Jamal.

The Bulldogs still trailed early in the second period, but a 9-3 run put them ahead to stay and the score was 24-21 at halftime.

Twice Deering pulled within a point in the third quarter, but Portland finally got some breathing room courtesy a 12-2 surge, capped by a layup from senior captain Pitia Donato.


The Rams got as close as 42-37 in the fourth period, but a 10-0 run put it away and the Bulldogs prevailed, 55-42.

Senior Kennedy Charles led all scorers with 14 points and Donato added 13 as Portland won its fourth game in a row, improved to 4-1 and in the process, dropped Deering to a misleading 0-4.

“We played so poorly against Lewiston, I didn’t know what to do,” Russo said, after his 451st career victory coaching for his alma mater. “I knew we had a tough schedule, so I’m very pleased where we are.”

Rivalry renewed

Portland entered Thursday’s game holding the all-time lead in the series, which dates to 1911, 152 wins to 83.

The Bulldogs, who were shocked by Cheverus on a buzzer-beater in last year’s quarterfinals, started with the aforementioned 56-47 setback at Lewiston, a game which saw them commit north of 30 turnovers. Portland then defeated visiting Bonny Eagle (42-28) and visiting Hampden Academy (56-47) and Tuesday, the Bulldogs handed host Cheverus its first loss, 48-45.


Deering, which also was ousted in the quarterfinals last winter, at Lewiston, has a new look this season as several key players graduated and senior Remijo Wani transferred to Portland, where he has yet to see action due to a knee injury.

The Rams opened this season with a 60-49 loss at Bonny Eagle, then fell at home to Cheverus (72-45) and Tuesday, at reigning Class AA North champion Oxford Hills (80-50).

Thursday, Deering hoped to beat Portland at the Expo for just the second time since 2006, but instead, the Bulldogs fought back the challenge and did enough to prevail.

Portland senior Kennedy Charles bounces a pass past Deering sophomore Evan Legassey to Bulldogs senior captain Pitia Donato during Thursday’s 55-42 victory. Hoffer photos.

The Rams hung tough early, scoring the game’s first point on a free throw from sophomore David Otti and after junior Jeissey Khamis scored the Bulldogs’ first points at the line, junior Rahim Shabani drove for a layup to put Deering up again.

After Khamis took a pass from senior Brady Toher and made a layup, Otti tied the score with a free throw and Otti finished a feed from Shabani to put the Rams back on top.

After Donato scored his first point at the foul stripe, Donato scored on a putback, but again, Deering answered, as Jamal made two free throws.


Senior Brady Toher scored on an inbounds feed from Donato, but Jamal drove for a layup and the Rams held a 10-9 advantage after one.

The game remained close in the second quarter as well.

After Shabani scored on a layup after a steal to start the frame, giving Deering its biggest lead of the night, junior Kevin Rugabirwa’s old-fashioned three-point play (layup, foul, free throw) tied the score and Charles, the football standout, who led Portland to the state final and is now a finalist for the Fitzpatrick Trophy, scored his first points on a 3-pointer.

Junior Sam Anderson made a foul shot for the Rams, Jamal added another, then sophomore Mogga Yanga sank two more to give the visitors their final lead, 16-15.

With 5:15 left in the first half, a Charles floater rattled in and gave the Bulldogs the lead for good.

Sophomore Drew Veilleux added a putback and after a Veilleux steal, Rugabirwa’s layup made it 21-16, forcing Deering coach Todd Wing to call timeout.


The Rams responded, as Otti scored on a putback and Yanga drained a free throw, but Charles converted a three-point play before a pair of Jamal free throws made it 24-21 Portland at the break.

The Bulldogs would finally get a little breathing room in the third period, but couldn’t completely put Deering away.

Portland senior Brady Toher is defended by Deering junior Rahim Shabani.

Jamal started the second half with two free throws and after Donato finished off the glass, Otti made a layup to make it a one-point game, 26-25.

But that’s as good as it would get for the Rams in the second half and Portland embarked on a 12-2 run.

Donato set up senior Sam Esposito for a layup to get things started, then Charles found Toher for a layup.

After Otti answered with a layup for Deering, Charles drove for a layup, Khamis made a free throw, Donato drained a pair, then junior Pepito Girumugisha hit another before Toher set up Donato for a layup and a 38-27 advantage.


After two free throws from sophomore Evan Legassey (his first points) snapped the run, Otti hit a short jumper to pull the Rams within seven, 38-31, heading for the fourth period.

There, the Bulldogs slammed the door.

A layup after a steal from Charles opened the frame, then, after Legassey sank a 3, Khamis sank two free throws for a 42-34 advantage.

Legassey then sank a 3 from the corner, but Deering would draw no closer, as Donato banked home a runner, Rugabirwa made a layup after a steal, Khamis scored on a putback, Charles finished in transition with a pretty reverse layup and a Donato putback capped a 10-0 run.

Jamal made two free throws and drove for a layup. A 3-point shot from junior Eddie Antonio gave Portland its final points and while Otti hit one last free throw, the Bulldogs were able to close out and celebrate their 55-42 win.

“It’s always nice to beat Deering,” said Donato. “They surprised me in the beginning, but I knew it would be a dogfight. We played our game. At first, we tried to play their game and buy into the rivalry. We found our way back into our game and it worked for us.”


“(Deering) did not make it easy for us,” Russo said. “It’s a rivalry game. I thought Deering played very well and we didn’t execute well. Our work ethic made good things happen. That was an ugly victory, but an ugly victory is better than a beautiful loss. It’s a mental rivalry. We weren’t ourselves in the first quarter. We got some baskets off our pressure and that gave us enough breathing room where we didn’t have to have any urgency. Our pressure wore them down.”

Charles not only led all scorers with 14 points, he also grabbed eight rebounds and had five steals.

“It was definitely my best game,” Charles said. “It was more scoring the ball tonight and limiting my turnovers.”

“(Kennedy) brings a lot of energy defensively,” Donato said. “Most of our energy comes from him. Offensively, he’s a good shooter.”

“I had so many guys in foul trouble that I was forced to play Kennedy the whole game,” Russo added. “He’s a kid who sat our most of last year because of COVID and injury and he’s playing really well. He rebounded, got steals.”

Donato added 13 points, nine rebounds and three steals. Khamis had nine points, seven rebounds, two steals and two blocked shots, Rugabirwa finished with seven points, Toher had four (to go with four assists and four steals), Antonio three, Esposito and Veilleux (four rebounds, two steals) two apiece and Girumugisha one.


“I thought the bench guys who came in were helpful,” Russo said. “They gave us key minutes to allow guys to rest.”

Portland had a 42-27 rebounding advantage, only made 11-of-21 free throws and overcame 16 turnovers.

Deering’s top scorers were Jamal (three steals) and Otti (four rebounds, three blocks) with 13 points apiece. Legassey tallied eight points and also had nine rebounds.

Shabani (three assists, three steals) finished with four points.

“Rahim stepped in and stuck to what he does really well, playing defense, being scrappy and getting to the rim and making things happen,” Wing said. “This was his first start for us and I’m very proud of how he played.”

Yanga (four boards) had three points and Anderson finished with one.


The Rams made 18-of-26 foul shots and committed 15 turnovers.

“Our emphasis was to cut down on turnovers,” Wing said. “That’s been our Achilles’ heel early in the season. Against a team that’s pressed us more than any by far, we only had 15. The guys played their tails off. They matched physicality and matched intensity. Joe did a good job mixing up defenses. The 2-2-1 (zone), the 1-2-2, playing us man (to-man). They kept us on edge just enough to get their extra baskets, but for a young team like this, to come into the Expo with an 0-3 record and match (Portland), I’m proud of them.”

Goodbye to the old year

The Rams will try again to get in the win column next Thursday when Lewiston pays a visit.

This is a team that’s going to become more and more of a factor going forward.

“It’s been a huge learning curve,” Wing said. “As a coach, I’m stepping back and taking it slow. A lot of the guys haven’t stepped on a varsity floor. I’m a teacher by nature, so it’s being patient. I’m teaching on the court. Every single game is tough. The wins will come. The improvement is coming. We’ll play for February. We’ll be ready. To have this team now, in February, next year, the year after, good things will come our way.”

Portland goes for its fifth straight victory at perennial power Edward Little Friday of next week. The Bulldogs will also take part on their annual holiday tournament at the Expo next week.

“After our ‘L,’ we didn’t hang our heads, but we built from it and treated it as a lesson, not a loss,” Charles said. “We learned from it and came back hungry. We just need to be consistent starting games and finishing games and I think we’ll be fine.”

Michael Hoffer can be reached at mhoffer@theforecaster.net. Follow him on Twitter: @foresports.

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