AUBURN—Resilience and a timely dose of Rugabirwa led Portland’s boys’ basketball team to a much-needed victory at recent nemesis Edward Little in yet another hard-fought Class AA North battle Friday evening.

The Bulldogs, who have responded nicely from a season-opening setback, welcomed senior Remijo Wani for his first game of the season and clung to a 9-8 lead after one quarter and a 20-18 advantage at halftime.

When Portland went up by six midway through the third period after a layup from Wani, it was on the brink of seizing control of the game, but the Red Eddies hung tough, rallied to take a momentary lead and were only down by two points, 31-29, heading to the fourth quarter.

There, Edward Little erupted on an 11-2 run and appeared primed for a pivotal victory, but the Bulldogs refused to fold and rallied to win it.

Six quick points from junior Pepito Girumugisha allowed Portland to draw even at 41-41, but with 1:10 to go, senior Landon Cougle’s layup gave the Red Eddies the lead.

Senior Pitia Donato got a point back at the line for the Bulldogs and after they got the ball again with 15 seconds to play, they designed a play to win it.


And it played out beautifully.

Wani drove the lane, drew the defense and fed junior Kevin Rugabirwa, who coolly drained a 3 from the corner with just over a second to go and that gave Portland a palpitating 45-43 victory.

The Bulldogs didn’t have a single player score in double digits, but it didn’t matter as they won their fifth game in succession, improved to 5-1 and in the process, dropped Edward Little to 2-5.

“Somebody smarter than I am once said, ‘The only stat that counts is the final score’ and I’m sticking to it,” said longtime Portland coach Joe Russo, after his 452nd victory with the program. “This victory was huge. I’d have liked it to have been prettier, but we’ll take it because we needed it. They’ve gotten the best of us the last few years. This year, we’ve got a pretty good team, but Edward Little played great.”

Every night’s a battle

Class AA North has lived up to billing this winter as a region without peer. Anyone can beat anyone on a given night and that’s largely been borne out in the season’s first three weeks.


Portland started with a 56-47 setback at Lewiston, then defeated visiting Bonny Eagle (42-28), visiting Hampden Academy (56-47), host Cheverus (48-45) and visiting Deering (55-42) in its most recent countable game.

Edward Little, a perennial powerhouse which lost to Oxford Hills on a buzzer-beater in last year’s regional final, dropped its first two games this season, 58-40 to Oxford Hills and and 65-44 to Hampden Academy. The Red Eddies got in the win column with an overtime victory (61-59) over Lewiston, then lost to Bangor (34-31). After a 62-53 win over Windham, Edward Little fell again, 53-49, at Cheverus Tuesday.

Last year, the Red Eddies beat the Bulldogs twice, 47-41 in Portland and 56-35 in Auburn.

Friday, Edward Little looked to beat the Bulldogs for the seventh straight time, but instead, Portland managed to defeat the Red Eddies for the first time since a 78-70 triumph Jan. 5, 2018 in Auburn.

In the teams’ final meeting in Edward Little’s ancient gymnasium.

Portland senior Pitia Donato hounds Edward Little junior Eli St. Laurent early in the Bulldogs’ 45-43 victory Friday. Hoffer photos.

Wani, the one-time Deering standout, who transferred to Portland this year but was injured late in the football season, finally made his Bulldogs’ debut in a countable game and earned the start.


The Red Eddies scored the game’s first points, as senior Tudum Monday put back a missed shot, but Wani drew Portland even with a floater.

Junior Jeissey Khamis then drained a 3-pointer to give the Bulldogs their first lead before senior Mohamed Adow made a 3 to tie the score.

A foul shot from Cougle gave Edward Little what proved to be its final lead of the half before Khamis scored on a putback and senior Brady Toher made two free throws. Cougle then set up Monday for a layup, but Portland took a 9-8 lead to the second period.

There, Khamis scored on a putback and after Adow converted a leaner, Wani scored after a spin move for a 13-10 advantage.

Junior Eli St. Laurent fed classmate Marshal Adams for a breakaway layup to cut the deficit to one, but Toher made a layup after a steal and senior Kennedy Charles made a jump shot for the Bulldogs’ biggest lead of the half.

The Red Eddies answered, as Cougle scored on a putback, then hit two free throws, and after Rugabirwa first made his presence felt with a 3-ball, a late layup from sophomore Maiwen Diing pulled Edward Little within two, 20-18, at the half.


In the first 16 minutes, Khamis led all scorers with seven points, but Portland had little breathing room.

And the game would ultimately come down to the very last shot.

Portland senior Kennedy Charles gets up close and personal with Edward Little sophomore TJ Kramarz.

Early in the second half, Cougle made a free throw, but sophomore Drew Veilleux countered with one for the Bulldogs.

Donato then made a layup after a steal and with 4:11 to go in the third quarter, Wani did the same, giving the visitors what proved to be their biggest lead, 25-19.

The Red Eddies didn’t buckle and quickly responded, as first Adams drained a 3 and after a Wani free throw, Cougle set up Adow for a layup before Adams made another 3 with 2:20 on the clock, giving Edward Little a 27-26 lead, its first since the score was 6-5.

Portland went back on top on a putback from Donato, then Rugabirwa drained another 3, but a driving layup from Adow pulled the Red Eddies within two, 31-29, and set the stage for a memorable fourth quarter.


Just 17 seconds into the final stanza, Cougle tied the score with two free throws.

Donato answered with a driving layup, but the next nine points went to the home team.

First, Adams sank a long 3 for the lead. Monday then made two free throws, Adams added two more and with 3:30 left, St. Laurent scored his lone points of the game, on a jumper, for a 40-33 advantage.

And then the Bulldogs showed what they were made of with a 12-3 surge to end the contest.

A corner 3-pointer from Girumugisha with 2:48 remaining snapped the run and a 4 minute, 21 second drought.

After Cougle made one of two free throws, Donato sank a pair and with 1:42 to go, Girumugisha drove for a layup, was fouled and added the and-one free throw to tie the game, 41-41.


Wani then stole the ball and Portland had a chance to take the lead, but Donato missed.

At the other end, with 1:10 remaining, Cougle made a layup and Edward Little was on top once more.

But the Red Eddies wouldn’t score again.

Undaunted, the Bulldogs got a point back with 38 seconds left, as Donato hit one of two free throws.

Cougle then had a chance to give Edward Little a little breathing room, but he missed two free throws and Portland got the ball back with 15 seconds left and called timeout.

Portland then went out and executed the winning play brilliantly.


Toher brought the ball into the frontcourt, passed to Wani on the left side and Wani drove in to the lane.

The Red Eddies sagged on to Wani and instead of forcing a shot, Wani spotted an open Rugabirwa in the right corner and got him the ball.

“I was thinking of passing the ball, not shooting,” said Wani. “They collapsed on me and I saw Kevin wide open.”

“I thought (Remi) was going to shoot it, then he passed me the ball,” said Rugabirwa. “That was the play. Either a shot, or kick it to me.”

“That last play was (Remijo’s) best play and he didn’t even score,” Russo added. “I wanted to run a play with three options. I didn’t look for him to score but to run that play. It was either going to be a pick-and-roll to Pitia, Remi keep it, or kick it out.”

As time wound down, Rugabirwa didn’t hesitate and launched a shot from behind the arc that was spot-on and found nothing but net with 1.7 seconds showing.


“It felt good off my hands,” said Rugabirwa. “It felt really good.”

“I knew he’d make it. It’s Kevin. He makes open shots,” Wani said. “Coach Russo drew up the play for us. He said (after the game) that was the only play we executed.”

“We put Kevin in that spot because he can shoot,” Russo added. “I saw it leave his hands and the ball in the air and I didn’t even look at the rim. I knew he’d knock it down.”

“Portland’s a really good team and credit to them,” said longtime Edward Little coach Mike Adams. “They hit the big shot at the end to win it. We expected something with Remi going to the rim. Our 2-3 zone bothered them and if we were in the 2-3 zone there, it would have covered the corner better. That’s totally on me.”

The clock rank down to zero and the Bulldogs celebrated, but the officials awarded the Red Eddies the ball with a half-second to go, enough time to throw it the length of court, catch and shoot.

But it wasn’t to be.


A long heave wound up going out of bounds and Portland inbounded the ball and the clock ran out and at 8:32 p.m., the Bulldogs were able to celebrate their 45-43 victory.

Portland mobs junior Kevin Rugabirwa after his game-winning shot.

“They gave us a hard game and it was a great win,” said Rugabirwa. “We didn’t play well, but we found a way to win it.”

“Our defense brought us back,” Wani said. “We clawed our way back.”

“We made the play down the stretch and that was the difference,” Russo added. “We didn’t execute much, but a lot of that had to do with (Edward Little). They made it a heck of a game.”

Donato (four rebounds and three steals) and Rugabirwa paced the offense with nine points apiece.

“If Kevin would learn the defensive system, he’ll help us even more,” Russo said.


Khamis had seven points, as did Wani (seven rebounds, three steals, two assists) in his debut.

“I’m really excited to be back playing,” Wani said. “I’m glad to be playing with this group of guys. I’ve known them a long time and played travel ball with them. ”

Girumugisha wound up with six points, Toher had four, Charles two (to go with five rebounds) and Veilleux one.

Portland made 8-of-12 free throws and only turned the ball over a dozen times.

For the Red Eddies, Adams finished with 13 points, four rebounds and a pair of steals. Cougle had a double-double (11 points and 11 rebounds, as well as three assists and three blocked shots). Adow added nine points, Monday finished with six (as well as five rebounds) and Diing and St. Laurent two apiece.

Edward Little out-rebounded Portland, 29-26, but made just 11-of-18 foul shots and committed 18 turnovers.


“We’re not setting the world on fire, but we know what we have to do and tonight, the kids did those things really well,” Mike Adams said. “For the first time this season, we did what we’re trying to do offensively a little better. Our kids did everything we asked them to do. Portland’s one of the best pressure teams in the conference and we took good care of the ball tonight.”

Pivotal week

Edward Little has two tests next week, at Deering Tuesday and at home versus Hampden Academy Thursday. The Red Eddies are only going to get better and that’s bad news for the rest of Class AA North.

“I’m proud of the guys,” said Mike Adams. “Tonight was encouraging. We’ve played Cheverus and Portland basically to a draw. They’re top-level and we’re right there. We’ll keep getting better. We know right now our record it isn’t what it could be or even should be, but by February, we want to be the team that’s improved the most.”

As for Portland, it plays three times next week, at home versus undefeated Oxford Hills Tuesday, at Windham Thursday and at home versus Cheverus next Saturday.

“We have a lot of great players and we can move the ball, shoot the ball, it’s all about execution,” Wani said. “We just need to run plays better. This gives us a lot of energy going into Oxford Hills. Hopefully we’ll bring the same energy as we did at the end of this game and make something happen.”

“We just need to run our offense,” Rugabirwa said. “That’s been our major problem. I’m confident we can win.”

“We’ve got a big week,” Russo added. “Hopefully we can build on this. It will be nice to see Oxford Hills and see if they have a weakness. I’m not looking to win that game, but I want to find out how we’ll play them the second and third time. I need the guys to gain confidence. I have to instill it. I know what they can do.”

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

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