FALMOUTH—It’s a good thing the Portland boys’ basketball team has been involved in an abundance of down-to-the-wire games so far this winter.

That’s because that crunch-time experience sure came in handy Friday evening at upset-minded Falmouth.

In an interclass battle between two of the state’s top boys’ squads, the reigning Class A South champion Navigators entered play without senior Judd Armstrong, but they rose to the occasion and gave the Bulldogs, a Class AA North powerhouse, everything they could handle for 32 riveting minutes.

Senior Remijo Wani scored nine first quarter points to give Portland a 12-8 advantage after eight minutes, but Falmouth closed the first half on an 8-0 run, highlighted by a 3-pointer from junior big man Chris Simonds, to take a 24-21 lead to the break.

The Bulldogs then came out sizzling in the third period, as their pressure defense forced multiple turnovers, sparking a 10-0 run, capped by a putback from senior Kennedy Charles, to make it 31-24.

But the Navigators refused to fold and retook the lead before a runner from senior Pitia Donato pulled Portland even, 33-33, heading to the final stanza.

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There, Falmouth threatened to pull off a memorable upset when unheralded sophomore Billy Birks made a layup with 5:01 left, but the Navigators’ offense ran dry.

After junior Kevin Rugbirwa pulled the Bulldogs within a point with a 3-pointer, Wani scored the go-ahead hoop with 46 seconds left and two free throws apiece from Charles and Wani iced it and Portland held on for a 44-41 victory.

Wani led all scorers with 23 points and Rugabirwa added 11 as the Bulldogs improved to 10-3 on the season and in the process, dropped Falmouth to 8-3.

“I’m pleased with how we hung in there because we fell apart for a lot of the game,” said longtime Portland coach Joe Russo, after earning his 457th victory with the program. “You always play the next play. That’s our motto. There’s a theory that you have to learn to win. You have to learn to keep your composure and have confidence. We’re learning.”

Play on

While much of Friday’s basketball slate was wiped out by a snowstorm, the Bulldogs and Navigators got the green light to play their highly anticipated contest.

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Falmouth opened the season by defeating host Biddeford (63-38) and visiting Kennebunk (57-50). After a 52-39 home loss to reigning Class AA champion South Portland, the Navigators got back on track at Brunswick, 63-55, then downed Mt. Ararat in a game played at the Expo Holiday Tournament, 48-37, beat host Marshwood (48-34), Gorham (60-56) and Morse (68-37), then downed visiting rival Greely, 51-37, before their six-game win streak was snapped last Friday with a 46-43 home setback to Marshwood.

Portland, meanwhile, started with a mistake-prone 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 Rugabirwa’s 3-pointer with just over a second to play. After falling at home to reigning regional champion Oxford Hills, 48-47, the Bulldogs defeated host Windham (50-35), then held off visiting Cheverus (46-43) and handed host Thornton Academy its first setback, 57-51. After a second, narrow loss to Oxford Hills, this time on the Vikings’ homecourt (62-52, in overtime), Portland beat visiting Windham, 57-43, in its most recent outing.

Last year, at the Expo, the Bulldogs held off the Navigators, 47-44, in the teams’ first regular season countable game. Portland also downed Falmouth, 57-47, in the 2015 Western A Final.

Friday, the two coaches (Russo and Dave Halligan) entered the game with over 1,000 career victories between them, a phenomenon rarely seen in Maine high school basketball.

“I’ve got so much respect for (Dave),” Russo said. “I’m so glad he’s still coaching because then I don’t feel like I shouldn’t be. I’m not the only old-timer.”

In front of a big crowd, the Navigators sought to beat the Bulldogs for the first time, but Portland did just enough to get out of Falmouth with a win.

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Portland junior Pepito Girumugisha shoots over Falmouth senior Peyton Mitchell during the Bulldogs’ 44-41 victory Friday. Hoffer photos.

After over two scoreless minutes to start the game, a bank shot from Simonds opened the scoring and gave the Navigators an early lead.

Wani then took over, draining a fadeaway jumper, taking a pass from Charles and making a layup, then banking home a contested shot.

After senior Paul Dilworth threw a nice pass to Simonds for a layup, Wani buried a 3 from the corner for a 9-4 advantage, forcing Halligan to call an early timeout.

It helped, as Dilworth made two free throws, then senior Lucas Dilworth drove for a layup to cut the deficit to a single point, but just before the horn, Rugabirwa got the ball from junior Pepito Girumugisha and drained an NBA-range 3 for a 12-8 advantage.

When Rugabirwa opened the second quarter with a layup, the lead was six.

Simonds then made a layup, but Donato answered with a putback.

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Simonds drove for a layup, then Lucas Dilworth sank a free throw, but with 4:51 to go in the first half, a Wani jumper made it 18-13 Bulldogs.

Senior Peyton Mitchell countered with a 3-ball, but Rugabirwa said, “anything-you-can-do-I-can-do-better” and drained a 3 of his own to restore the five-point advantage with 3:17 to go before the break.

The rest of the first half was all Falmouth, however, as Simonds sank a 3 from the corner, senior Eli Cowperthwaite tied the game with two free throws. Lucas Dilworth got to a loose ball and somehow batted it under the basket to Mitchell, who made a layup, then Cowperthwaite sank another free throw for a 24-21 Navigators’ advantage.

Simonds and Wani each scored 11 points for their respective teams in the first half.

There would be no separation to speak of in the second half either.

Falmouth senior Lucas Dilworth tries to drive on Portland senior Kennedy Charles.

Portland’s defense sparked its offense when the third period commenced.

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After a Donato tip-in, Wani took over again, putting the Bulldogs ahead with a layup after a Charles steal, scoring on a fastbreak layup off a feed from Girumugisha, then sinking two free throws.

Charles then added two foul shots with 4:24 on the clock and the Bulldogs had their biggest lead, 31-24.

“The first couple minutes of the second half, we played our 2-2-1 halfcourt (zone) and got turnovers and baskets at the other end,” Charles said.

But back roared the Navigators, as Birks hit a 3 from the corner to end the 10-0 Portland run and a 4 minute, 47 second scoring drought. Birks was fouled on the shot, but couldn’t add the free throw for the rarely-seen four-point play.

Simonds added a short jumper, Mitchell drove and tied the score with a layup, then Lucas Dilworth stole the ball, faked a defender and laid the ball in with his left hand to put Falmouth back in front.

With 1:51 to go, a Donato runner off the glass tied the score and sent the game to the fourth quarter deadlocked at 33-33.

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Every possession would be a battle down the stretch, but the Bulldogs did just enough to pull it out.

Fifty seconds into the final stanza, Wani converted a contested layup, but at the other end, Simonds tied it with a bank shot.

With 6:38 to play, Simonds scored on a putback, then with 5:01 to go, Birks’ layup (off Lucas Dilworth’s feed) made it 39-35.

“Billy’s been waiting to do that,” said Halligan. “It was trial by fire. I don’t like to put a young kid in that situation, but he stepped up.”

But the Navigators then went cold.

With 3:52 remaining, Rugabirwa sank a 3 from the corner.

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Each team then had multiple empty possessions and the clock ticked under a minute before Portland went on top to stay.

With 46.3 seconds showing, after taking a pass from senior Brady Toher, Wani managed to score on a leaner while being fouled and while he missed the and-one free throw, the Bulldogs were in front, 40-39.

“Coach drew up a play and we just executed it,” said Wani, who transferred to Portland from Deering this school year and missed several games early in the season due to a knee injury suffered during football. “I just happened to score the basket. I feel pretty good. Shooting-wise, I’m 100 percent and it’s great to be back.”

“It took all five guys to execute that play,” Russo said.

Donato kept possession for Portland by getting an offensive rebound on Wani’s free throw miss and after somehow saving a sure turnover, Charles was fouled with 22.6 seconds to go.

Charles sank the first free throw with ease and he got a fortunate roll on the second to stretch the lead to three.

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“I just tried to tune (the student section) out, do my routine and knock down my free throws,” Charles said.

Falmouth then looked to tie, but in a jawdropping display of athleticism, Charles jumped the passing lane, knocked the ball up the court, then he somehow ran it down, corralled it before going out of bounds, passed it to Wani and Portland called timeout.

“I’m going to do what I can and what I’m good at,” said Charles.

“That play, (Kennedy) was actually behind the offensive man and not in the passing lane, but he rotated and got to it,” said Russo. “He got up and tracked it down and controlled the ball and we got the timeout.”

Then, with 14.2 seconds left, Wani was fouled and he sank both attempts to essentially ice it.

Lucas Dilworth drove for a layup eight seconds later, but the Bulldogs were able to run out the clock and celebrate their hard-fought 44-41 victory.

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Portland celebrates at the final horn.

“We started the game pretty slow, but thankfully we picked it up,” said Wani. “Throughout the year, we’ve been in a lot of close games, so we’re comfortable. We were able to pull it out.”

“It’s definitely a good feeling to win,” Charles said. “We’ve learned how to close out games.”

“Falmouth played a heck of a game,” Russo added. “Their kids rose to the occasion. I know they were undermanned and any time a team is undermanned, I get nervous because I expect other kids to step up. The game could have gone either way. It came down to two great plays at the end. Remi finishing the play at the basket and Kennedy’s hustle. The kids made big free throws at the end. It seems like we shoot better at the end when the game is on the line.”

Wani dazzled with 23 points. He also had four rebounds, three steals and blocked two shots.

“Remi is such a good kid,” said Russo. “I don’t really know him yet. It’s been a roller-coaster ride for him. He played a really good game tonight. I don’t know what buttons to push yet. It’s nice to know that in big games, he’s come through. He’s a great addition.”

Rugabirwa added 11 points, Donato had six (to go with nine rebounds and three steals) and Charles finished with four (to go with five rebounds, three steals and three assists).

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“Kennedy’s on the floor because he plays great D and he hustles,” Russo said. “He’s one heck of an athlete and he’s just 5-foot-7. The best thing about him is he just plays. We love the kid.”

Portland overcame 16 turnovers and made 6-of-10 free throws.

Falmouth was paced by Simonds, who had 17 points and eight rebounds. Lucas Dilworth added seven points, six rebounds, five steals, five assists and was the team’s sparkplug on both ends of the floor.

“Lucas tried to step up as a senior captain,” said Halligan. “He’s a competitor and he’s sad we didn’t get the ‘W.'”

Mitchell also had seven points off the bench, Birks added five, Cowperthwaite had three and Paul Dilworth finished with two (to go with four rebounds).

The Navigators had a 30-28 advantage on the glass and made 6-of-10 foul shots, but was doomed in part by 25 turnovers.

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“A lot of people thought it wouldn’t be a game without Judd, but we had some other guys that stepped in and played well,” Halligan said. “This is the experience you get playing a team like this. We could play a lesser team and win without Judd, but not learn the lessons we learned tonight.

“Turnovers were the difference. You can’t win many games with 25 turnovers. We tried to do too much by ourselves. Once we started playing as a team, good teams happened.”

Big week upcoming

Both squads will be tested next week.

Falmouth looks to bounce back Tuesday when it hosts Brunswick. The Navigators then have a makeup game at red-hot Westbrook Wednesday and play at Class AA South favorite Thornton Academy next Friday night.

“This can only help us,” said Halligan. “We can’t defer to the pressure. We have to recognize the pressure and attack it. We have to move the ball with the pass and not the dribble.”

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As for Portland, it has a home showdown against Lewiston Tuesday as it looks to avenge a previous loss. The Bulldogs then travel to Bangor next Friday.

“We have to play to our potential and not down to our potential regardless of who we’re playing and treat every game like it’s our last,” said Charles.

“Lewiston is a big game because they beat us,” Russo said. “Lewiston will come at us. We have to handle the ball and score points. We have to get above the 50-point mark. We haven’t shot great, but we can shoot the ball. We’re still learning to be calm and cool with offensive basketball.

“I hope the confidence from this game will carry over. I love this team. I love our effort, how we communicate and how we get along. I’m having a lot of fun with these guys.”

Michael Hoffer can be reached at [email protected].

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