PORTLAND—Remijo Wani had been quiet.

Very quiet.

But in one stunning moment, Wani reminded everyone why he’s one of the region’s elite players.

By hitting a shot that propelled Portland’s boys’ basketball team into an elusive regional final.

Friday afternoon at the Cross Insurance Arena, the second-ranked Bulldogs took on a third-seeded Lewiston squad which had handed them a pair of narrow losses during the regular season.

But the third time would be the charm.


After a slow start, Portland went on top, 8-6, after one quarter, thanks to a 6-0 run highlighted by a 3-pointer from junior Kevin Rugabirwa.

In the second period, the teams went back and forth, as Lewiston completed a 12-2 run and went on top and after the Bulldogs drew even, a putback from senior Jibril Holloman put the Blue Devils up, 20-18, at the break.

Action picked up in the third quarter, as first Lewiston, then Portland took a four-point lead, but a jumper from junior Yusuf Dakane just before the horn pulled the Blue Devils within a single point, 34-33, heading to the final stanza.

There, the game would be tied twice more before Wani took center stage, calmly burying a 3-pointer with 1:20 remaining the give the Bulldogs the lead for good.

Junior Jeissey Khamis added four big free throws down the stretch and Portland prevailed, 46-40.

The Bulldogs improved to 15-5, ended Lewiston’s fine season at 14-6 and advanced to take on top-ranked Oxford Hills (19-1) in the Class AA North Final Saturday at 3:45 p.m., at the Cross Insurance Arena.


“It’s nice playing over here again,” said longtime Portland coach Joe Russo. “I’m happy for the kids to get to this point because they worked hard. I’ve been on them. I love them dearly, but I’m not always pleasant.”

Long wait ends

Portland and Lewiston had to sit idle for over a week after winning their respective quarterfinal round games, due to the way the Class AA North tournament is structured plus an extra day due to a snowstorm.

The Blue Devils enjoyed a solid 13-5 regular season, while the Bulldogs matched that mark (see sidebar for links to previous stories).

Lewiston beat Portland twice during the regular season, 56-47 at home in the opener, then 39-36 at the Expo.

The teams had met nine times in the postseason dating to 1928 (see sidebar), with the Bulldogs holding a 6-3 advantage.


Friday, Portland did just enough to advance.

It took over two minutes for the first basket to be scored, but it came off a nice long pass from Khamis to senior Kennedy Charles for a layup.

The Blue Devils drew even on a jumper from senior Jibril Holloman, but senior Brady Toher set up Khamis for a layup, Donato made a free throw, then Toher set up Rugabirwa for an 8-2 advantage.

Lewiston then answered with a layup from senior Isaac Shannon and a pair of free throws from Dakane to make it a two-point game after eight minutes.

The Bulldogs came out strong in the second period, as Donato banked home a shot in traffic, then Donato fed Wani for a 3-pointer (not his last one) and a 13-6 lead.

Senior Eli Bigelow then made a layup and converted an old-fashioned three point play (layup, foul and free throw), but Donato made a free throw, then hit another on the next possession before Dakane hit a 3, then was whistled for his second foul (a charge).


Dakane stayed in, however, and the Blue Devils continued to surge, going on top for the first time on a short jumper from Holloman, then Holloman stole the ball and fed Dakane for a layup and an 18-15 advantage, forcing Russo to call timeout.

A free throw from senior Sam Esposito stemmed the tide, then Rugabirwa tied it with a putback, but at the horn, a Holloman putback gave Lewiston a slim 20-18 edge at halftime.

Dakane started the second half with a putback, but Rugabirwa sank a 3, then Donato tied the score with a free throw.

He missed the second, however, and the Blue Devils went back in front on a breakaway layup from junior Michael Klick.

Charles gave Portland the lead with a 3, then Lewiston countered on a 3 from Klick before Donato made a layup to tie the score, 27-27.

The Bulldogs then got four quick points, as Rugbirwa set up Donato for a layup, then Rugabirwa stole the ball and raced in for a layup, but again, back came the Blue Devils, as Bigelow drove for a layup and Dakane hit two foul shots.


With 1:23 left in the quarter, Khamis set up Ruganirwa for a 3 and the lead before a pullup jumper at horn from Dakane made it a one-point game, 34-33, going to the fourth period.

There, neither team could separate and it came down to the final minute.

Rugabirwa gave Portland a spark to start the frame by stealing the ball and making a layup, but after senior Caed Langley and Donato traded free throws, Bigelow coolly drained a 3 to tie it, 37-37, with 3:38 on the clock.

The Bulldogs retook the lead on a Khamis foul shot with 3:20 left, but with 2:17 to go, Langley made one of two to even the score once more.

Enter Wani.

After the teams traded turnovers, Wani found himself alone up top and he didn’t hesitate, calmly firing a 3 that found the net and with 1:20 on the clock, Portland finally had the lead for good, 41-38.


“I was kind of surprised that I was wide open,” Wani said. “I heard the players on the bench and Coach yell, ‘Shoot the ball, shoot the ball.” I saw I was wide open and it felt good off my hand. I’m glad that my teammates came through for me.”

“I don’t know what was up with Remi,” Russo said. “Maybe the pressure being here, but you can’t keep a good player down. I told him to settle down. We had confidence in him. At crunch time, we designed a play for him and he came through.”

Out of a timeout, at the end other end, Klick had a look at a 3 to tie the score, but it was off target.

Hollomon grabbed the rebound, but Rugabirwa stole it away and got the ball to Toher, who was fouled with 32.2 seconds remaining.

Toher hit the front end of a one-and-one, but missed the second.

Bigelow got the rebound, but Toher stole it back and got the ball to Khamis, who was fouled with 32.2 seconds showing.


Khamis calmly sank both free throws and the Bulldogs were on the brink.

After Bigelow missed a shot, Khamis got the rebound and with 9,7 seconds left, he went back to the line and again, he hit both free throws to ice it.

“The free throws at the end were huge because we’re not normally that good, but lately, we’ve made the big ones,” Russo said.

Dakane drove for a layup with 4.5 seconds remaining, but it was far too little, too late and Portland ran out the clock and at 3:24 p.m., celebrated its 46-40 victory.

“This means a lot,” said Wani. “They gave it to us the first two times. We came in knowing we had to show up. We kind of calmed down and slowed the pace and played our game.”

“All I said at halftime was that I didn’t think we worked hard, but we played hard, so I told them we had to work harder, get in the passing lane, get loose balls, just step it up a notch physically and we did,” Russo said.


Rugabirwa tied for game-high scoring honors with 15 points and he also had five steals.

“Kevin can score,” Russo said. “You can’t tell him not to shoot. When he’s in, he looks to shoot.”

Donato also finished in double figures with 11 points (and six rebounds).

“Pitia is relentless,” said Russo. “He just goes and goes and goes.”

Khamis had seven points (and six rebounds).

“Jeissey had a nice fourth quarter on the boards,” Russo said. “He has good hands and made free throws.”


Wani added six points (to go with three steals), Charles had five and Esposito and Toher (five steals) finished with one apiece.

The Bulldogs made six 3-pointers, overcame 20 turnovers and made 12-of-20 free throws.

“I know what I have in front me, players who can play basketball,” Russo said. “It’s a next-man-up mentality. Every game it can be someone else. It was a great second half effort. They all came up with a big play, whether it was a shot or a defensive play.”

Lewiston’s effort was paced by Dakane, who had 15 points, five steals and four rebounds.

“We just ran a couple simple things on (Yusuf) because we didn’t want him to penetrate,”said Russo. “When he did, we engulfed him. Great respect for him and Lewiston and (Coach Elgin Physic).”

Bigelow added 10 points, Holloman had six (to go with eight rebounds and three steals), Klick finished with five (and three assists) and Langley (seven boards) and Shannon both had two.


The Blue Devils had a 26-22 advantage on the glass and made 7-of-9 free throws, but committed 24 turnovers.

Another nemesis

Like Lewiston, Oxford Hills frustrated Portland twice in the regular season, eking out a 48-47 decision at the Expo before prevailing in overtime at home, 62-52.

The teams met twice before in the playoffs, with the Bulldogs taking the most recent meeting, 56-36 in the 2017 semifinals en route to their most recent state championship.

That year was also the last time Portland played in a regional final.

And now, the Bulldogs are back.

“Cole Pulkkinen is the guy who really hurt us the last two games and their pressure really bothered us, so if we play our game and stay at our own pace, we’ll be OK,” said Wani.

“It’s hard to believe it’s been that long,” Russo said. “It doesn’t seem it. It’s going to be a tough task because (Oxford Hills is) a quality team. They can withstand more mistakes than we can. We have to come out fighting. We played them twice. There’s a different mentality for them because they’re number one. We’ll come out loose and play hard.”

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

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