PORTLAND—This time, the Bulldogs held on.

A year after letting a late lead slip away in an agonizing home playoff loss to Cheverus, Portland’s boys’ basketball team welcomed the Stags back to the Portland Exposition Building Saturday afternoon and history almost repeated itself.


The Bulldogs seemingly had the game in control most of the way, never trailing and building a 10-6 lead after one quarter, extending it to 25-18 at halftime and 35-27 after three periods before seemingly putting it away when junior Jeissey Khamis scored on a putback to make it 44-29 with just over three minutes left.

But Cheverus, led by senior standout Silvano Ismail, who hit the improbable buzzer-beater to shock Portland in last year’s quarterfinals, refused to buckle and roared back within three on an Ismail layup with 9 seconds to go.

The Stags even had a look at a potential game-tying shot, but it was off the mark and the Bulldogs survived in yet another Class AA North thriller, 46-43.


Portland improved to 7-2 on the year and in the process, swept Cheverus this winter and dropped the Stags, who got a whopping 31 points from Ismail, to 7-3.

“I told the guys to keep their heads up because we won the game,” said longtime Bulldogs coach Joe Russo. “The important stat is the final score. They gave us a scare and pushed us to the brink and we bent, but didn’t break. I’m very pleased with how we’ve played so far.”

Holding on

In a year where Class AA North is deep and balanced and apparently up for grabs, both squads have impressed the first half of the regular season.

Cheverus started the season by handling visiting Bangor (67-42) and host Deering (79-52), then won at Westbrook (58-51) before falling at home to Portland (48-45) and Lewiston (66-58). The Stags responded by beating visiting Edward Little (53-49) and winning at Hampden Academy (58-42) and Scarborough (71-50) before defeating visiting Deering Thursday, 66-57.

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 enjoying a thrilling 45-43 victory at Edward Little on junior Kevin Rugabirwa’s 3-pointer with just over a second to play. Tuesday, the Bulldogs nearly won at the horn again, but fell at home to reigning regional champion Oxford Hills, 48-47. Thursday, Portland got back in the win column, 50-35, at Windham.


The Bulldogs held on in the teams’ first meeting, Dec. 20, at Cheverus.

Saturday’s meeting was the teams’ first at the Expo since Ismail’s miracle 3 at the horn gave the Stags a 44-42 victory in the Class AA North quarterfinals last Feb. 16.

This time around, Cheverus had a chance to steal one again, but this time, despite Ismail’s heroics, Portland found a way to pull it out at the end.

Portland senior Remijo Wani looks to go up for a shot as Cheverus junior Maddik Weisberg (center) and senior Silvano Ismail defend. The Bulldogs held on for a 46-43 victory. Hoffer photos.

In the first period, Ismail scored all six Stags’ points, on a free throw, a 3-pointer and basket, but the Bulldogs held a 10-6 advantage, as senior Pitia Donato had four points, while Khamis, Rugabirwa and senior Kennedy Charles all had two-point baskets of their own.

Portland quickly stretched its advantage to 16-8 midway through the second period before junior Gio St. Onge made a free throw for Cheverus’ first non-Ismail points, then Ismail drove for a layup to cut the deficit to five.

Khamis responded with a layup, set up by Donato, and after sophomore Sammy Nzeyimana made a foul shot for the Stags, junior Pepito Girumugisha stole the ball and set up senior Remijo Wani for a layup to make it 20-12.


Ismail countered with a contested leaner, but after St. Onge was called for his third foul, Khamis converted an old-fashioned three-point play (layup, foul, free throw) for the Bulldogs’ biggest lead of the first half, 23-14.

At the other end, after senior Carter Hoglund kept possession alive with an offensive rebound, Ismail drained a 3, then junior Maddik Weisberg added a foul shot to pull the Stags within five before a last second bank shot from sophomore Drew Veilleux gave Portland a 25-18 advantage at the break.

Ismail had 15 of Cheverus’ 18 first half points, but the Bulldogs’ balanced attack had them in front.

Portland senior Remijo Wani looks to pass as Cheverus senior Luke McNabb defends.

Little changed in the third quarter.

Ismail opened the second half with a 3 pointer, but Khamis scored on a putback, then made a free throw before Charles set up Wani for a fastbreak layup and a 30-21 lead.

Ismail countered with a three-point play (runner, foul, free throw), but in transition, Charles set up Donato for a 3. After Ismail hit a floater, Donato converted a short hook before a Nzeyimana free throw pulled the Stags back within eight, 35-27, heading for the fourth period.


Where Portland appeared primed to coast to victory before Cheverus made it very interesting until the final horn.

A bank shot from senior Brady Toher gave the Bulldogs their first double-digit lead 47 seconds into the fourth, then Toher set up Rugabirwa for a 3-pointer.

With 4:07 remaining, sophomore Leo McNabb made a jumper to not only snap the Stags’ 5 minute, 49 seconds scoring drought but also produce Cheverus’ first non-Ismail field goal of the day.

It didn’t help, as Khamis immediately countered with a bank shot, then Khamis scored on a putback to make it 44-29 with 3:18 left.

The Stags began their furious comeback with 2:33 to go, as Ismail drove and banked home a shot. Ismail then hit a long 3-pointer with 1:53 left to make it a 10-point contest.

After McNabb scored on a leaner 16 seconds later, senior Jacob Lucier stole the ball and set up Ismail for a layup and with 1:25 remaining, the deficit was just six, 44-38.


After Khamis missed the front end of a one-and-one, Toher grabbed the offensive rebound, was fouled and with 1:03 to go, made one of two free throws to snap a 9-0 Cheverus run.

The Stags weren’t done, however, as with 53.6 seconds to go, Hoglund took a pass from McNabb and calmly drained a 3 from the corner.

Ismail then stole the ball and Cheverus had two looks at a 3-pointer which could have made it a one-possession game, but both were off the mark and with 18.8 seconds left, Khamis was fouled and hit one free throw.

Ismail then drove for a layup and with 9.9 seconds showing, the Stags were within three, 46-43.

On the ensuing inbounds pass, Hoglund stole the ball and immediately threw up a potential game-tying shot, but it was short.

Cheverus got one more chance as McNabb intercepted a long pass and was fouled with 0.8 seconds on the clock.


McNabb hoped to hit the first, then intentionally miss the second and hope for a miracle, but the front end of the one-and-one was off-target and the ball was knocked around until the horn sounded and Portland was finally able to exhale and celebrate its 46-43 victory.

“I think we didn’t handle the ball well and we kind of panicked, but we’re fighters and we don’t give up,” Khamis said.

“It could have been a 20-point win,” Russo said. You’re going to miss layups in life. If you shoot them the way they’re supposed to be shot, I can live with it, but I can’t describe some of those shots (down the stretch). If we lost again, it would have been devastating. We’ll face pressure from teams. The word is out to press Portland, but we’re going to surprise them. We did some things better individually than last game. The movement just wasn’t there.”

Khamis paced the Bulldogs with a double-double of 15 points and 10 rebounds.

“They couldn’t guard me in the paint, so the guys kept getting me the ball,” Khamis said.

Donato finished with nine points, seven rebounds and three steals.


Wani added six points and seven rebounds as the former Deering standout who is still recovering from a knee injury suffered during football season, continues to play a bigger role with the team.

“Remijo is new to the program, so he has to learn,” Russo said. “He’s a solid player. I think he’ll be super for us down the stretch.”

Rugabirwa tallied five points, Toher had four, Charles three (to go with five rebounds) and Veilleux and junior James Johnson two apiece.

“It’s not my intention to play this many guys,” Russo said. “I do it because I have to do it. We have 10 or 11 guys who are pretty much the same. Until six or seven make it hard for me to take them off the floor, I’ll do it. As the season goes on, you shorten your bench, but right now, I wouldn’t know how to shorten it.”

Portland made 8-of-15 free throws and overcame 25 turnovers.

Ismail dazzled for Cheverus, not only scoring 31 points, but also grabbing 11 rebounds for a double-double while blocking three shots.


“We always know that Silvano will penetrate or go for a jump shot, so we just tried to get a hand up,” Khamis said.

“Silvano was doing everything and guys have to help out,” said Stags coach Richie Ashley. “It’s not like he was shooting it every single time. He passed the ball and guys got open looks, but we have to make some.”

McNabb added four points, Hoglund had three (to go with four rebounds and three steals off the bench), Nzeyimana finished with two, as did St. Onge (seven rebounds, two steals) and Weiberg had one.

The Stags turned the ball over 16 times and hurt their cause by making just 6-of-17 foul shots.

“We did good job of coming back,” said Ashley. “We could have waved the white flag, but we didn’t. We never do. It was great energy and effort, but our execution obviously has to be a lot better. Our foul shooting has to be better. We have to knock down shots.

“It was a good high school game. There was some atmosphere at the end. It’s always great to play at the Expo. Most of our games are like this.”


More obstacles

If Cheverus and Portland play again, it would have to happen in the tournament, which is a long way off.

“Portland’s tough,” Ashley said. “They’re really good. I’m not sure if I want to see them a third time, but it would nice to play them in the playoffs. We’ll cross that bridge if we get to it.”

The Stags are idle until Friday when Hampden Academy pays a visit. Cheverus then goes to Edward Little for a contest on Martin Luther King Day, Jan. 16.

“It’s good this week to only have one game,” said Ashley. “The way we play and our lack of size, we have to exert so much energy in every game, this bye will be great for us to rest up for Hampden. They’re good. Their starting five is as good as anybody’s. We’ll get ready for them, then get ready for EL.”

The Bulldogs have two huge road tests next week, at undefeated, Class AA South favorite Thornton Academy Tuesday, then at Oxford Hills Friday.

“We like the tough games,” said Khamis.

“It’s going to be physically easier than this week, but not easier in terms of teams we play,” Russo said. “We have to play supposedly the two best teams in the state.”

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

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