Portland’s boys’ basketball team is back in the state final.

For the first time in six years.

Saturday afternoon at the Cross Insurance Arena, the second-seeded Bulldogs proved for the second day in a row that the third time is a charm, as they shook off a pair of regular season losses to top-ranked Oxford Hills and sent the Vikings home.

In surprisingly emphatic fashion.

Portland rallied from an early five-point deficit and forged a 7-7 tie after one quarter on a late 3-pointer from senior Remijo Wani, the hero of Friday’s semifinal round win over No. 3 Lewiston, another team that had beaten the Bulldogs twice during the regular schedule, but not when it mattered most.


After junior Jeissey Khamis scored on consecutive putbacks to cap an 11-0 run for a 13-7 lead, Oxford Hills scored seven straight points of its own. But Wani again saved his best for quarter’s end, banking home a shot after a pretty move with just a couple seconds left and Portland was ahead to stay, 18-16.

The Bulldogs then began the third period on an 11-2 run, capped by a Khamis 3-pointer, to gain some separation.

The Vikings were within eight points, 33-25, heading to the fourth quarter, but there, Portland scored six quick points, four from Khamis and two more from Wani, to essentially ice it and went on to a stunning 47-35 victory.

Khamis had the game of his life, scoring 19 points and grabbing 19 rebounds as the Bulldogs won a regional title for the first time in six seasons, improved to 16-5, ended Oxford Hills’ excellent season at 19-2 and in the process, advanced to take on South Portland (18-3) in the state final Saturday, March 4 at 8:45 p.m., at the Cross Insurance Arena.

“We had to grind it out from day one,” said longtime Portland coach Joe Russo, who captured his eighth regional crown with the program. “We’ve focused on hard work and defense. The guys keep doing it. They hung there and didn’t get frustrated.”

Coming to life


Oxford Hills made it all the way to the state game a year ago before losing to South Portland.

This season, the Vikings have lived up to billing as the favorite, winning 17 of 18 games before downing No. 8 Bangor (72-55) in the quarterfinals and holding off fourth-ranked Cheverus (66-60) Friday in the semifinals.

Portland, meanwhile, was very competitive during the regular season, losing two close games to Lewiston, two close games to Oxford Hills and at the buzzer to South Portland, while winning its other 13 outings (see sidebar for links to previous stories).

After holding off No. 7 Windham in the quarterfinals (49-46), the Bulldogs closed strong and edged No. 3 Lewiston in Friday’s semifinal round, 46-40.

The Vikings won both regular season meetings, but there wasn’t much separation between the teams.

In the first game, visiting Oxford Hills held on for a 48-47 victory when Portland couldn’t get a shot off at the end. In the rematch, the game went to overtime before the host Vikings pulled away, 62-52.


The teams had met twice prior in the tournament (see sidebar), each winning once.

Saturday, the Bulldogs simply wouldn’t denied, thanks to a superb defensive effort and the game of Khamis’ life.

Portland set the tone 27 seconds in when senior Pitia Donato scored on a drive.

Oxford Hills then established itself, as junior Holden Shaw grabbed an offensive rebound and set up senior Eli Soehren for a 3, senior Tanner Bickford scored on a putback, then Soehren was fouled while shooting a 3-pointer and he made two of the ensuing three throws for a quick 7-2 advantage.

Back roared the Bulldogs, as Khamis scored his first points on a contested bank shot before Wani’s 3 tied the score, 7-7, after eight minutes.

Portland then started the second period strongly, as sophomore reserve Drew Veilleux was fouled on a 3 and hit two free throws, Khamis made a layup, then with 6:07 to go in the first half, Khamis scored on a putback to complete an 11-0 run and give the Bulldogs a 13-7 advantage.


The Vikings responded, as junior Teigan Pelletier made a jumper out of a timeout, to snap a 6 minute, 44 second scoring drought and a 7:44 field goal drought, senior standout Cole Pulkkinen made a free throw for his first point, Shaw banked home a spinner, then with 2:07 on the clock, Soehren sank two free throws to give Oxford Hills what proved to be its last lead, 14-13.

With 1:53 left before halftime, Portland’s unheralded senior reserve Sam Esposito came up huge and drained a 3 and after Shaw tied the score with a short jumper 14 seconds later, Wani gave Portland the lead for good with 2.1 seconds on the clock, as he made a nice move to elude a defender, then banked home a shot to make it 18-16 at halftime.

Khamis had six points and eight rebounds (four coming on the offensive end) in the first half, but he’d elevate his game even more in the third quarter as the Bulldogs extended their lead.

After senior Kennedy Charles drove for a layup to start the second half in auspicious fashion for Portland, Pulkkinen responded with a spinner for his first field goal, but Khamis spun and scored on a reverse layup and Charles set up Wani for a layup and a 24-18 lead, forcing longtime Oxford Hills coach Scott Graffam to call timeout.

It didn’t help, as junior Kevin Rugabirwa drove and scooped home a shot, then Khamis showed his dexterity by burying a 3-pointer from the corner.

Pelletier stemmed the tide with two free throws, but Khamis grabbed an offensive rebound, was fouled and hit two free throws.


After Pulkkinen drained a pair of foul shots and Pelletier added another, Khamis scored on a floater, giving him nine points in the frame.

A late bank shot from Soehren pulled Oxford Hills within 33-25 heading for the final stanza.

There, the Bulldogs slammed the door.

First, senior point guard Brady Toher set up Khamis for a layup.

Khamis then sank two free throws and with 2:38 left and the Vikings doing nothing offensively, a Wani floater made it 39-25.

Pulkkinen tried to spark a comeback with two free throws 24 seconds later, ending a 6:29 drought, but Toher answered with two foul shots.


With 2:02 on the clock, Pelletier converted an old-fashioned three-point play (layup, foul, free throw), then Pulkkinen made two foul shots, but Charles set up Donato for a layup to end any remaining doubt.

Pulkkinen converted a three-point play with 1:19 to go, but 10 seconds later, Wani sank two free throws and Portland was able to run out the clock from there and celebrate its 47-35 victory.

“Everyone here has each other’s backs and we’re willing to work hard day-in, day-out and come to practice ready to play,” said Esposito. “I couldn’t ask for better teammates. We knew no team could beat us three times. That’s why we beat Lewiston and Oxford Hills. Everyone stepped up. We played a complete team game.”

“It means a lot to us because we haven’t gone to states in awhile,” Khamis said. “It’s playoffs. You either move on or go home and we decided to go on.”

“As the year progressed, we got better,” Wani said. “Everyone said it’s hard to beat a team three times and this is a good example of that.”

“The most special thing about this group is their willingness to listen to me,” Russo added. “I haven’t been easy on them. Hopefully they know I care about them, but I’ve been on them and I’m never satisfied.


“We rely on teamwork. Tonight, we got a lot out of our ‘1’ men, ‘Pep’ (junior Pepito Girumugisha) and Brady, handling the ball. Our ‘5’ men, Jeissey and Sam, were solid tonight. Those two positions are critical.

“I’ve done this for so long. Every year is enjoyable because of the process. I’m just so happy for the kids. When our defense got consistent, I thought we had a chance. It’s hard work and not many kids want to put the work in, but these guys did it. When they bought in, I knew that would salvage the year. We kept getting better.”

Khamis had the game of his life (19 points, 19 rebounds and a couple of steals for good measure) and was named the regional tournament’s most valuable player.

“I don’t even know how to explain it, to be honest,” said Khamis. “I like playing here. It’s similar to the Expo. I kind of started out slow, but I picked up the pace in the second half. I was in the right place for the rebounds.”

“Jeissey was the difference,” said Wani. ‘I’ve played with him for a long time and he came to play. I don’t know what got into him. Your guess is as good as mine. I’m glad he came through and hopefully, he’ll come through again next week.”

“We don’t know what to expect from Jeissey,” Russo added. “What he did tonight, he could do that every game if he wanted to. If something’s clicking and he’s motivated, he can dominate. Everyone was raving about (Shaw) dominating Cheverus (in the semifinals) and that he was unstoppable. Jeissey guarded him and rose to the occasion. He has a soft touch and can score. With him, it’s just wait and see.”


Wani added 11 points and five rebounds.

Donato had six points and five boards.

Esposito was huge in his limited time off the bench with three points and three rebounds.

“Jeissey grabbed every single rebound and I can’t really compete for minutes with him because he’s such a monster, but when he needs a break, I need to go in there and help the team and that’s what I’m trying to do,” said Esposito, a member of the football regional championship team last fall.

Charles (three steals and two assists), Rugabirwa, Toher and Veilleux all finished with two points.

The Bulldogs won the rebounding battle, 42-33, only turned the ball over a dozen times and hit 10-of-12 free throws.


Oxford Hills was paced by Pulkkinen, who bowed out with 12 points and nine rebounds.

Pelletier added eight points (and five boards), Soehren had seven and Bickford (four rebounds) and Shaw (seven rebounds) both finished with four.

The Vikings made 16-of-19 free throws and only turned the ball over 11 times, but they only made nine field goals all game and were held well below their scoring average.

“That was a tough one, but Portland deserved to win that game.” Graffam said. “I’ve been doing this a long time, had a lot of tournament teams and, you know, you play along, play along, it’s ecstasy, ecstasy, then it’s over. So it really sucks, unless you win it all because it’s such an abrupt ending and you can’t really prepare for it.”

Thirty-two minutes to gold

Portland and South Portland have met 16 times in the tournament over the past 60 years with the Bulldogs holding a 9-7 edge. The last encounter was the 2017 state final, a decisive 60-38 Portland victory.


In the regular season finale Feb. 9, the Bulldogs let a late lead slip away and lost, 49-48, at home to the Red Riots on a Jaelen Jackson buzzer-beater.

Portland seeks to avenge one more loss next Saturday and bring home the big prize.

“I’m so excited,” said Wani, who didn’t get a chance to play in the football state game (a Bulldogs loss to Skowhegan) back in November due to a knee injury. “Missing football states really took a toll on me. I’m just glad to be playing now, especially with this group of guys. I want to win the next game for the football team as well. I walk the hallways and look at the Gold Balls and it would be great to be part of another one. We just have to rebound and play defense. That’s what’s got us here.”

“We want to win states really bad,” said Khamis. “We have to play hard on defense and have less turnovers.”

“I’m happy but we did this in football and I want to win the next game too,” Esposito said. “I’m really proud of the guys. Our one goal is to win the next game. We just need to work hard and work as a team.”

“We’re going to have to have a week of figuring it out,” Russo added. “It’ll depend on how we come out. We’ll focus on defense and maybe we’ll play some offense too.”

Sun Journal staff editor Lee Horton contributed to this story.

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

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