PORTLAND—Portland’s boys’ basketball team proved Tuesday night that it can play with the preseason favorite Oxford Hills Vikings.

But the Bulldogs still need to find a way to beat them.

And they’re guaranteed one more chance, with two more a good bet.

Portland, coming off a breathtaking buzzer-beating victory at Edward Little in its last outing, hosted the undefeated Vikings at the Portland Exposition Building and produced a nearly flawless first half.

The Bulldogs closed the first period on an 8-0 run to take a 15-9 lead and extended it to 32-22 at the half, thanks to six made 3-pointers and just five turnovers.

But Oxford Hills didn’t panic and turned to its zone defense and pinpoint outside shooting to come back.


A rockfight of a third quarter saw Portland momentarily go up by a dozen points before the Vikings drew within nine, 39-30.

Oxford Hills then scored eight points in the first 42 seconds of the fourth period and eventually took its first lead since the first quarter, 45-44, when senior Eli Soehren draiend a 3-pointer with 3:16 to play.

The Bulldogs drew even on a free throw from senior Pitia Donato 14 seconds later, but with 2:25 left, senior Tanner Bickford made the game’s biggest shot, a 3-pointer, to put the Vikings ahead for good.

Portland pulled within a point on a layup from senior Remijo Wani and got the ball back with 6 seconds left with a chance to produce another fantastic finish, but this time it wasn’t to be as the Bulldogs couldn’t get a shot off and Oxford Hills held on for a 48-47 victory.

The Vikings improved to 7-0, dropped Portland to 5-2 and in the process, snapped the Bulldogs’ five-game win streak.

“We’ll play (Oxford Hills) three times this year,” said Portland coach Joe Russo. “I’m convinced (we’ll play them in the playoffs). They’re very good. They’re the measuring stick. They have the upper hand but they can be beat. It will just take a solid effort.”


No separation in AA North 

Entering the season, Class AA North was viewed as balanced and competitive as any region in the state and December’s results backed it up.

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) before Friday’s thrilling 45-43 victory at Edward Little on junior Kevin Rugabirwa’s 3-pointer with just over a second to play.

Oxford Hills, which lost to South Portland in last year’s state game, boasts several members of the Class A football state champion and this year’s Vikings are favored to win a Gold Ball in basketball too. So far, they haven’t disappointed. Oxford Hills opened with a 58-40 win over Edward Little, then defeated Lewiston (56-44), Deering (80-50), Hampden Academy (69-42), Noble (83-62) and Windham (65-52).

Last winter, the teams split, with Portland prevailing at home (52-43) and Oxford Hills doing the same (45-40).

Tuesday, the Bulldogs had their chances to earn a gigantic dose of confidence, but the Vikings played like the champions they hope to become and did just enough down the stretch to prevail.


It took over two minutes for the game’s first points to be scored, as senior Pitia Donato made a layup to put Portland on top.

Senior Brady Toher then hit a 3 for the hosts and after junior Holden Shaw banked in a shot for Oxford Hills, senior Kennedy Charles set up Toher for a reverse layup and a quick 7-2 Bulldogs’ advantage.

The Vikings then came to life, as Bickford fed junior Jake Carson for a layup, Bickford made a 3 from the corner, then senior Cole Pulkkinen took a pass from junior Teigan Pelletier and made a layup to cap a 7-0 run for a 9-7 lead.

But Oxford Hills wouldn’t lead again until the fourth quarter.

With 1:24 to go in the opening stanza, Toher fed Rugabirwa for a 3 and Portland was back on top.

Twenty-two seconds later, Toher fed Rugabirwa for another 3 and with 9 seconds to go, Toher set up Rugabirwa for a layup to make it 15-9 after eight minutes of play.


The Bulldogs continued to surge to start the second period, as Toher hit a 3, then senior Sam Esposito made two foul shots to cap a 13-0 run.

With 6:35 to go in the half, a 3-ball from Pulkkinen ended the run, but Esposito countered with a 3 from the corner.

Pelletier hit a free throw, then drained two more and after Charles scored on a putback, Soehren made his first 3-pointer and with 2:42 on the clock, Pulkkinen broke away for a layup and the Vikings were within five, 25-20.

Portland then countered with seven quick points, as Donato fed Wani for a layup, Rugabirwa drove for a layup and Donato sank a 3.

Oxford Hills then got a bit of momentum back before the break, as Pelletier stole the ball and fed Pulkkinen for a slam dunk which made the score 32-22.

The third quarter saw little offense, but the Bulldogs were able to maintain their lead.


Fifty-one seconds in, Wani banked in a shot and Portland had its largest advantage.

The Vikings then countered on a floater from Pulkkinen and a long 3 from Soehren. After Charles made two free throws for the Bulldogs, Pelletier sank one, but Toher drove for a layup to make it a 10-point game again, 38-28.

In the final minute, Pelliter hit a fadeaway jumper and a Donato free throw gave Portland a 39-30 advantage heading to the fourth quarter.

Where Oxford Hills came to life and pulled out the victory.

The Vikings seized momentum 18 seconds in, when Pelletier hit a 3.

After a Bickford steal, Pulkkinen converted an old-fashioned three-point play (layup, foul, free throw) and Pelletier then set up Shaw for a layup to suddenly cut the deficit to a single point, 39-38.


Wani momentarily stemmed the tide by taking a pass from Toher and hitting a 3 from the corner, but Bickford scored on a runner.

With 5:31 on the clock, junior Pepito Girumugisha made two free throws to give the Bulldogs a 44-40 lead.

After Shaw countered with two foul shots, Soehren drained a 3 with 3:16 to go and for the first time since the score was 9-7, Oxford Hills had a lead, 45-44.

Donato tied the score by hitting one of two free throws 14 seconds later, but the Vikings were patient and worked their offense and Bickford got the ball from Pelletier in the corner and buried a 3 with 2:25 on the clock for a 48-45 lead.

“I was just trying to put up some points and my teammates did the rest,” Bickford said.

After a Bulldogs’ turnover, Oxford Hills had a chance to make it a two-possession game, but Pelletier couldn’t convert a layup.


At the other end, Charles missed a contested layup and the Vikings got the ball back.

But Portland’s defense then came up huge, as Wani stole the ball and made a layup with 21.4 seconds to go to make it a one-point game.

With 10.9 seconds left, Pelletier was fouled, but he missed the front end of a one-and-one.

Soehren came up huge, however, and got the offensive rebound and got the ball back to Pelletier, who was fouled again with 6.5 seconds to go.

Again Pelletier, couldn’t convert a front end of a one-and-one and the rebound went out of bounds to the Bulldogs, giving them a chance to again snatch victory from the jaws of defeat.

But this time, Portland couldn’t set up a play, as it was out of timeouts.


And as a result, Oxford Hills’ defense came up huge one final time.

Toher tried to race up the floor, was slowed and tried to pass to Wani just beyond halfcourt, but the ball was knocked away and while it eventually was collected by the Bulldogs and went to Toher, his desperation 3-point attempt came after the horn and the Vikings held on for a 48-47 victory.

“Our team is fundamental in our defense and we take pride in it,” Bickford said. “We’ve always been a second half team. We just come out and get the other team tired. Portland’s a fast team, but I think we have more size and we were a little more physical and that helped us.”

“I knew we could defend (the last play),” said longtime Oxford Hills coach Scott Graffam. “Our press was good for us. We got the right guys to the right spot. They couldn’t get the ball across half-court and they only had six seconds left.

“I knew that at some point, we’d make a run. I was hoping it would be before the fourth quarter. Our pressure wore them down a little bit. We’re a big, strong team, but they’re a quality team and we’ll have to beat them (in the playoffs). They played well and they played disciplined.”

Pulkkinen led all scorers with 14 points. Pelletier added nine points, eight rebounds and four assists. Soehren also scored nine points, while Bickford had eight (to go with four assists and three rebounds), Shaw six and Carson two.


The Vikings made 7-of-11 free throws and only turned the ball over 10 times.

Portland got 10 points apiece from Rugabirwa and Toher (four assists). Wani finished with nine points, seven rebounds and two assists, Donato had seven points and six boards, Esposito five points, Charles four and Girumugisha two.

The Bulldogs had a 22-21 edge on the glass, made 8-of-10 free throws and committed a dozen turnovers.

“We let that one slip away, but we gave it a great effort,” said Russo. “We had too many turnovers down the stretch against their press. They’re tall and take up space, but we know what we need to do with the ball and we didn’t take care of it. Hopefully the guys will think about the fourth quarter and think about what they can do differently individually. It’s a team game, but sometimes there are moments that become individual moments. Flashing to the ball, helping teammates, being in the right spot.

“We held them to 48 points. We have to be able to score more than 50. Our goal is to keep teams below 50, which we did, but we have to score more than 50. We gave them uncontested 3s and the end. The same shots in the first quarter we were in their face. We didn’t get out in their chest in the fourth quarter and we gave them space.”

See you once more, perhaps twice


The teams meet again a week from Friday in Oxford, but both have multiple tests first.

Oxford Hills has two more road games this week, at Lewiston Thursday and at Massabesic Saturday. The Vikings return home for a showdown versus Edward Little next Tuesday, then welcome Portland.

“This was a week we’ve looked at since the beginning of the season it will tell us where we’re at,” said Graffam.

The Bulldogs, meanwhile, visit Windham Thursday, welcome Cheverus Saturday, then have a showdown at Class AA South favorite Thornton Academy next Tuesday before going to Oxford Hills.

“This game is over and Windham won’t be a cakewalk,” Russo said. “All our games are going to be tough. It’s been a fun year so far.”

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

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