PORTLAND—Jaelen Jackson calls himself lucky.

Kevin Millington calls his standout senior fearless.

Call it what you like, but it sure does seem to work.

Thursday evening at the Portland Exposition Building, facing rival Portland, Jackson, for the third time in four games, buried a late, clutch shot to snatch victory from defeat and remind everyone that when it comes to the reigning Class AA champion South Portland boys’ basketball team, anything is possible.

The Red Riots got off to a fast start in the ancient rivals’ mutual regular season finale, taking a 13-6 lead after one quarter and going up, 28-22, at halftime, as junior Gabe Galarraga dominated the glass and had 10 points.

The Bulldogs cut a 10-point deficit to just one in the third period, but South Portland was still ahead by three, 38-35, heading to the final stanza.


There, Portland went on top for the first time since the first quarter, but the Red Riots drew even at 41-41 and 43-43.

The Bulldogs took a one-point lead on a free throw from senior Pitia Donato with 2:21 to play, but with 1:07 left, senior Ben Smith’s jumper bounced in and South Portland held a 45-44 edge.

Twenty-two seconds later, Portland went ahead again, as junior Jeissey Khamis made a layup, but Galarraga was fouled with 5.7 seconds to go.

Galarraga would miss both free throw attempts, but on the second, Jackson grabbed the rebound and put it home with 3.4 seconds showing and the Red Riots stunned the partisan crowd and escaped with a 47-46 victory.

South Portland finished the regular season 15-3 and in the process, dropped the Bulldogs to 13-5.

“I told the guys with a minute to go that win or lose, this is so valuable heading into the tournament,” said Millington, the Red Riots’ coach. “Three of our last four games have been a complete grind and that’s got to be good for us.”


Down to the wire

Class AA has proved to be unpredictable this winter, but Portland and South Portland have successfully staked their claim as title contenders.

The Red Riots, who snapped a three-decade title drought a year ago, opened with victories over host Noble (76-60), visiting Windham (66-46) and host Sanford (77-68). South Portland then enjoyed an impressive win at reigning Class A South champion Falmouth (52-39) before losing at home to Thornton Academy (69-60). The Red Riots then rattled off victories at Massabesic (66-26), at home over Sanford (78-41) and Massabesic (82-22) and at Scarborough (65-50) before home to Gorham (65-55). After downing visiting Bonny Eagle (50-33), South Portland was beaten at Thornton Academy (82-61), then returned to its winning ways against visiting Deering (74-40) and Scarborough (64-57), at Bonny Eagle (39-38, on a Jackson buzzer-beating 3), at home against Noble (63-55) and at Gorham (55-54, on another late Jackson hoop).

The Bulldogs, meanwhile, have handled every foe with the exception of Lewiston and reigning Class AA North champion Oxford Hills. Portland 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 junior Kevin Rugabirwa’s 3-pointer with just over a second to play. After falling at home to 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 and held on for a 44-41 win at Falmouth. After a second loss to Lewiston, this time at home, 39-36, the Bulldogs beat host Bangor (57-31), visiting Edward Little (56-33) and host Deering (54-47).

A year ago, en route to the championship, South Portland pulled away in the second half and beat visiting Portland in the regular season finale, 55-37, cutting the Bulldogs’ all-time edge in the series, which dates to 1910, to 127-107.

Thursday, the Red Riots prevailed again, but this time, by a much slimmer margin.


After seniors from both teams were honored and the Bulldogs’ student section led the crowd in an impromptu rendition of the national anthem, Portland struck first, on a Khamis putback 82 seconds in.

It took until 5:21 remained in the first quarter for South Portland to get on the board, as senior Joey Hanlon drove for a layup.

Midway through the frame, Jackson made a 3-pointer and the Red Riots would hold the lead until deep into the second half.

After Wani countered with a putback for his first points, Galarraga drove and slammed the ball home, junior reserve Nafees Padgett got an offensive rebound and set up sophomore reserve Manny Hidalgo for a spinner, then Hidalgo assisted on a Jackson layup for an 11-4 advantage.

After Khamis countered with a layup, set up by senior Brady Toher, Hidalgo drove and made a reverse layup for a 13-6 lead.

The Bulldogs looked to rally when the second period began, as Wani knocked down a 3 and Donato added two free throws, but Galarraga drove and banked home a shot.


With 4:41 to play in the half, Wani pulled up and buried a 3, but at the other end, senior Andrew Heffernan got a 3-point shot to bounce off the rim and in.

After Wani scored on a floater, Galarraga scored on a contested bank shot while being fouled and he added the and-one free throw to complete the old-fashioned three-point play.

Rugabirwa then banked home a leaner, but junior Jayden Kim set up Jackson for a breakaway layup, Padgett drove for a layup, then with 50 seconds to go, Galarraga scored on a leaner while being fouled, then added the free throw to put his team up by 10.

Portland would gain some momentum before the break, however, as first Wani drove and made a reverse layup with 21 seconds to play, then in the final second, senior Kennedy Charles’ driving layup cut South Portland’s lead to 28-22 at the break.

Wani had 12 points and eight rebounds in the first half, but the Red Riots, thanks in part to 10 points from Galarraga, managed to hold the lead.

The Bulldogs then started the second half fast, as Wani stole the ball and raced in for a dunk, then Toher set up Donato for a layup, but Galarraga countered with a putback.


After Khamis sank two free throws, he went to the line again with 4:15 to play in the frame with a chance to tie the score, but he made just one attempt.

At the other end, Galarraga scored on a putback while being fouled, then completed the three-point play and moments later, on the fastbreak, Hanson set up Jackson for a layup and a 35-29 lead.

Portland responded again, as Wani made a runner in the lane, then Wani took a pretty pass from Donato and made a layup, but Galarraga made a free throw, then scored on a putback before a layup by Wani at the horn pulled the Bulldogs within three, 38-35, heading for a down-to-the-wire fourth period.

Portland scored the first six points of the final stanza, as Charles made a free throw, Donato set up Khamis for a layup to tie it, then with 6:39 on the clock, Toher made a free throw for the Bulldogs’ first lead since the score was 2-0.

With 6:04 to go, Khamis spun and banked a shot off the glass which went around and in for a 41-38 advantage.

But South Portland immediately drew even on a 3-pointer from Kim (set up by Padgett) and after Wani made a layup to put Portland back in the lead, Smith stole the ball and fed Hanlon for a layup with 2:51 left to tie the game, 43-43.


Wani then missed a 3, but Donato kept possession with an offensive rebound and was fouled with 2:21 remaining.

Donato made his first attempt, but missed his second, but the Bulldogs were ahead by a single point.

Smith and Jackson then missed for the visitors, but Portland couldn’t capitalize.

With 1:07 to play, Smith got a bounce on a jumper to give the Red Riots a one-point lead, but 19 seconds later, Donato fed Khamis, who hesitated to shake a defender, then made a layup for a 46-45 Bulldogs advantage.

South Portland never buckled, however, running the clock down to 28 seconds before Millington called timeout.

The Red Riots would inbound the ball and Jackson passed it to Kim, who looked to make something happen, before dishing off to Galarraga, who was fouled while going up for a shot with just 5.7 seconds showing.


Longtime Portland coach Joe Russo called timeout to ice Galarraga and it worked, as his first foul shot rimmed out.

Galarraga had another attempt to tie it, but the ball came up short.

And then, soaring to the rescue again came Jackson, who got the loose ball and before Khamis could react, he shot it over him and in with 3.4 seconds remaining.

“We just had to execute and there was a luck factor for the ball to bounce right to me,” said Jackson. “I’m lucky to be in the positions I’ve been in. I really thought (Gabe) would make it. I have full faith in him. He’s a great basketball player. It can be tough to shoot in the gym. As soon as he shot it, I just stayed low and got past Pitia, who’s a very good rebounder. Ben came underneath me and I pushed off him and got the ball and I just shot it. I’m so focused at that time. I can’t even hear the crowd anymore. I’m just playing basketball. I can’t really explain it.”

“Jaelen’s not afraid to miss,” Millington said. “That’s huge. He’d rather take the shot. Jaelen was going to get his hands on the ball somehow. We knew Jaelen would make a play. It was hard for him tonight because Portland face-guarded him, but he stayed tough.”

“It would be have been better if (Galarraga) made both free throws because we would have had time to try a last-gasp play and hope it worked,” Russo said. “To have him miss and not get the rebound, it stings.”


South Portland started to celebrate prematurely, as the horn had not yet sounded, but Portland simply didn’t have time to recover and never came close to generating a final prayer of a shot and the Red Riots held for a 47-46 victory.

South Portland senior Jaelen Jackson, center, is mobbed by teammates after his go-ahead basket in the waning seconds. Hoffer photo.

“Obviously, we would have loved to win by more, but a win’s a win,” said Jackson. “At the end of the day, we’re just playing basketball. It doesn’t matter how much time there is. When it comes down to the wire, I don’t think of it any differently. You can say we’re getting used to being behind late. All three times it’s been away games. I think it would be a lot louder at home, but I love coming into another school and sending them home with a loss. It feels good.”

“Portland’s so good defensively and we knew it was going to be a grind,” Millington said.

Galarraga led South Portland with 18 points and seven rebounds, six of which came on the offensive end.

“(Gabe) destroyed us tonight,” Russo said. “He had a heck of a game.”

Jackson had 11 points, to go with seven rebounds.


Hanlon (two steals) and Hidalgo (two rebounds) each tallied four points, Heffernan and Kim (three rebounds) had three and Padgett (six rebounds, three assists, two blocked shots and a steal off the bench) and Smith (three steals) finished with two apiece.

“We have a lot of talent all the way through the program,” Millington said. “We’re really 13-deep. It’s hard to play 13, but our guys can do things off the bench. Whatever the game dictates.”

The Red Riots made just 4-of-13 free throws and turned the ball over nine times.

Portland got a game-high 22 points from Wani, who also had 10 rebounds for a double-double.

“I thought if we could keep Remi in the teens we’d win,” Millington said. “We couldn’t do that, but we barely won.”

Khamis added 13 points and seven rebounds, Donato had five points (to go with four rebounds and three assists), Charles (three rebounds, two steals) finished with three, Rugabirwa two and Toher one (to go with five rebounds and three assists).


The Bulldogs out-rebounded South Portland, 35-29, made 8-of-17 free throws and committed 16 turnovers.

“It’s a tough one,” Russo lamented. “It was another exciting high school game. It would have been more fun if we pulled it out. We had our opportunity, but we couldn’t secure the ball and they got it and scored and that’s why we lost. We were in the driver’s seat, but South Portland found a way to win and we didn’t. We gave a good team extra opportunities. We had some turnovers down the stretch that hurt us because they were unforced.

“I thought the kids did a lot of really nice things tonight. We proved we can play with anybody. I was more pleased than I was disappointed. Remi and Jeissey played tremendous. My guards played great perimeter defense. Pitia played a strong all-around game. He missed some tough shots, but he gives us so much.

“I said to the kids, going 13-5 we maybe overachieved, but they’ve been really fun. We’re in every game.”

Let the fun begin

Portland will be No. 2 in Class AA North and will host No. 7 Windham (5-13) in the quarterfinals, likely next Thursday at the Expo.


The Bulldogs swept the Eagles this season. The teams split two prior playoff meetings, with a 55-53 Windham upset in the 2018 Class AA North semifinals the most recent.

Portland hasn’t advanced beyond the quarterfinals since 2019 and is hoping for a long postseason stay this time around.

“We have to get by Windham,” Russo said. “They’re one of those teams, I think our pressure can bother them. We can do so many things.”

South Portland projects to be the No. 2 seed for the Class AA South tournament and will likely host No. 7 Sanford (5-13) in the quarterfinals next week. The Red Riots twice beat the Spartans this season. South Portland is 9-0 all-time (dating to 1975) versus Sanford in the tournament, with a 65-39 win in the 2019 Class AA South quarterfinals the most recent.

If they advance, the Red Riots could have to solve two teams that handed them defeats, Gorham and Thornton Academy, to return to the big stage. South Portland has reached at least the semifinals in seven straight tournament appearances and is going to embrace not being the favorite for a change, leaving that onus to the Golden Trojans.

“(Going 15-3’s) a credit to the program,” Jackson said. “It’s been really good as long as I can remember. Last year’s team was extremely talented. This year, we don’t have as much, so our success has a lot to do with coaching.

“I like being kind of an underdog. We have to continue to improve defensively. Offensively, I really like what we’re doing in general. We’re moving the ball around and spreading out our points.”

“I think we were most likely (seeded) second anyway, but this ices it for sure,” Millington said. “It’s great to have tough games down the stretch and we’ve played well. It’s a completely different team from last year. We do have a lot of kids back, but every one of those kids, even Jaelen, is in a completely different role. We’ve had to adapt and figure out our identity and we’re getting there for sure.

“We don’t shoot really well. We don’t have light the world on fire, but we have to make 3s here and there and we have to defend the 3 because our athleticism makes it hard for teams to get 2s. We need to do those things and not turn the ball over. It is different when you’re the favorite and you expect to win, but it’s fun to be the gritty team. We weren’t that last year, so it’s fun to be back to being the team that has to earn it.”

Michael Hoffer can be reached at mhoffer@theforecaster.net.

Comments are not available on this story.