PORTLAND—Last year, South Portland’s boys’ basketball team was expected to win the state championship.

The Red Riots did just that and made history in the process.

Fast forward a year, where South Portland wasn’t the favorite.

But the Red Riots brought home another Gold Ball regardless and made history again.

Monday evening at the Cross Insurance Arena, South Portland capped a late-season surge by leading most of the way against rival Portland in the Class AA state final and for the first time in over four decades, the Red Riots can call themselves back-to-back champions.

South Portland started fast and raced to an 11-2 lead in the first quarter, but couldn’t deliver an early knockout blow and the Bulldogs, who were just as improbable a finalist, pulled within 11-4 after eight minutes, then cut the deficit to just four points, 17-13, at halftime.


Portland then went on top three different times in the third period, the last, 26-23, on a layup from senior Remijo Wani, but after South Portland senior secret weapon Ben Smith tied the game with a 3-pointer, a pair of free throws from sophomore reserve Manny Hidalgo gave the Red Riots the lead for good.

South Portland led, 31-26, heading for the final stanza and there, ended all doubt, getting three straight hoops from Smith, an old-fashioned three-point play from senior standout Jaelen Jackson, then a dagger of a 3-point shot from junior Jayden Kim to complete a dizzying 20-2 run to make it 43-28.

The Bulldogs would get no closer than nine points the rest of the way and the Red Riots went on to a 52-42 victory.

Smith led all scorers with 19 points, Kim added 13 points and Jackson finished with a dozen as South Portland finished the year on a 10-game win streak to wind up 19-3, ended Portland’s fine season at 16-6 and won its second consecutive state championship and the program’s 13th all-time.

“I can’t even put it into words,” said Smith, who saved his best for his final high school game. “I have tears coming out of my eyes. It’s the best feeling in the world. It means a lot because no one expected us to do this, but we knew from the beginning of the year we’d compete for this.”



Neither Portland or South Portland was expected to be playing in the season’s final game, but both squads improved as the year progressed and took care of business in the tournament (see sidebar for links to previous stories).

The Bulldogs went a solid 13-5 in the regular season, then, as the No. 2 seed in Class AA North tournament, survived No. 7 Windham’s upset bid in the quarterfinals, 49-46, finished strong to down No.3  Lewiston in the semifinals, 46-40, then upset top-ranked Oxford Hills, 47-35, in the regional final.

The Red Riots, meanwhile, followed up their first championship in three decades with another solid campaign, overcoming the departure of big man extraordinare J.P. Estrella and team heart-and-soul Owen Maloney, by closing the regular season on a six-game win streak, then, as the second seed in Class AA South, eliminating No. 7 Sanford (47-34), dispatching sixth-ranked Scarborough (63-37) in the semifinals, then upsetting top-ranked Thornton Academy in the regional final (55-44), avenging two regular season setbacks in the process.

Portland lost to visiting South Portland, 47-46, on Jackson’s buzzer-beater in the team’s lone regular season encounter.

Both teams have a rich legacy of postseason success and have squared off in some memorable postseason battles over the decades (see sidebar)

In fact, the first time Portland and South Portland met in the tournament was 100 years ago, a 38-18 Bulldogs’ victory, March 9, 1923.


The teams met in the inaugural Class AA championship game in 2016 (a dramatic Portland victory in double-overtime) and again the following year (where the Bulldogs won with ease). That evened the all-time postseason series at 15 wins apiece.

South Portland, which won the very first state championship in 1922, entered the contest 12-11 all-time in final games, with last year’s victory over Oxford Hills giving it a winning record on the big stage (see sidebar). The Red Riots hoped for a repeat crown for the first time since 1979 and 1980, when the legendary Bob Brown coached and his son, Brett Brown, starred on the floor.

Portland, meanwhile, was 10-6, with its 2017 championship its most recent.

The state game was originally scheduled for Saturday evening, but the threat of bad weather and a city-wide parking ban moved the contest to Monday.

Where the Red Riots started fast and after giving up the lead, flipped the switch in the second half to bring home the big prize.

After each team missed a shot on its opening possession, South Portland opened the scoring 39 seconds in as Jackson buried a long 3-pointer.


After another Portland miss, senior Joey Hanlon hit a 3 and the Red Riots had the jump.

With 5:02 to go in the opening stanza, the Bulldogs broke through, as Wani made two free throws, but at the other end, Smith spun and finished for his first points.

After a Portland turnover, junior Gabe Galarraga made a free throw for South Portland and when he missed the second attempt, Smith got the rebound and put it home for an 11-2 lead.

But the Red Riots weren’t able to build on their early momentum, as Smith missed his only shot of the game, South Portland threw the ball away, then Jackson missed a 3.

Late in the quarter, Wani drove for a layup and despite poor shooting and turning the ball over seven times, the Bulldogs only trailed by seven, 11-4, heading to the second quarter.

There, 11 seconds in, senior Pitia Donato made two free throws. Junior Jeissey Khamis, the hero of the Class AA North Final, then scored on a putback.


After Smith countered with a jumper, Galarraga blocked shots from junior Pepito Girumugisha, Wani and junior Kevin Rugabirwa before he was whistled for his second foul and had to sit.

Portland then got offensive rebounds from Wani and sophomore Drew Veilleux, but couldn’t finish.

With 3:12 to go in the half, Khamis drained a 3 to cut the deficit to two, but Jackson responded with two free throws and the next time down the floor, Smith scored on a leaner to restore a six-point advantage.

With 1:27 remaining, Rugabirwa scored on a putback and the Bulldogs only trailed by four, 17-13, at the half.

Smith led South Portland with eight first half points, while Khamis kept Portland close with five points and eight rebounds.

Just 28 seconds into the second half, Khamis buried a 3-pointer from the corner and after a miss from Galarraga, senior Brady Toher was fouled and made both attempts to put the Bulldogs ahead for the first time, 18-17.


Kim countered with his first points, a 3-ball, but Toher made two more foul shots to tie the score, 20-20.

After Jackson rushed a shot and missed, Donato set up Khamis for a bank shot and the lead, but a Kim 3-pointer put the Red Riots back in front, 23-22.

With 4:30 to go in the frame, Wani scored on a putback and after Khamis blocked a shot, Wani drove for a layup with 3:17 remaining and Portland threatened to take control.

But that would prove to be the Bulldogs’ highwater mark.

With 2:46 left, Kim set up Smith for a 3-ball from the corner to tie the score.

Portland then had another frustrating possession, as Khamis missed a shot, got his own rebound, missed again, then Wani couldn’t convert a putback either.


With 1:18 to go in the quarter, Hidalgo was fouled after grabbing an offensive rebound and in the game’s sixth and final lead change, he sank both free throws for a 28-26 lead.

And South Portland wouldn’t look back.

After Veilleux missed a shot and Jackson blocked a shot from Wani, Kim drove to the hoop, made a layup while being fouled and added the free throw to complete the old-fashioned three-point play to make it 31-26 Red Riots heading to the fourth period.

There, Toher scored on a runner 37 seconds in to make it a one-possession game, but it didn’t spark a comeback, as South Portland got a jumper from Smith and after a miss from Khamis, Smith hit a long jumper.

After a Toher miss, Smith struck again with a contested jumper that rattled home with 5:40 remaining to push the lead to 37-28.

“I had confidence from the last game and practices,” Smith said. “Jaelen and Jayden gave me confidence. I knew I could play on this floor and I hit my shots. It’s a game of runs. We had to stop their runs and we did. We went on a run ourselves. We have to shoot with confidence and that’s what we did.”


After a Portland turnover, Jackson drove, laid the ball in and drew a foul in the process. He added the and-one free throw and with 4:32 on the clock, the lead was a dozen.

“When it mattered, we held them off and we came down and produced on the offensive end,” Jackson said. “When they went ahead, we knew we would bounce back.”

After a Smith steal, senior reserve Andrew Heffernan got the ball in the corner, passed up a 3-point shot, then fed Kim, who didn’t hesitate and buried a 3-pointer to complete a 20-2 surge and make it 43-28.

“I felt I was struggling, but second half, I knew I had to pick it up for the team,” said Kim. “Their pressure was intense, but I’ve gone against pressure many times and I was confident.”

“The big thing was Jayden hit some shots,” said South Portland coach Kevin Millington. “(Portland) went into their zone and we had trouble getting shots. I’m not sure we wanted to live and die with the 3, but Jayden hit a few, then Ben hit one. It got us back in the lead and we just kind of rolled from there.”

Donato tried to spark a rally with a 3-ball, but even though the Red Riots turned the ball over twice in succession, the Bulldogs couldn’t capitalize and with 1:51 on the clock, Jackson drove and banked home a shot.


Eleven seconds later, Toher set up Rugabirwa for a 3, but Kim made one of two foul shots with 1:21 remaining.

A Khamis leaner cut the deficit to 46-36 with 1:14 to play and Portland got the ball right back, but Toher missed the front end of a one-and-one and with 55 seconds left and at the other end, Smith drained a pair of foul shots.

The Bulldogs kept hope alive as Wani hit a long 3 with 40 seconds to play, but after Smith missed the front end of a one-and-one and Jackson got the layup, Galarraga made a layup with 24 seconds to go, making it 50-39.

Khamis got a point back at the line, but with 6.4 seconds remaining, Jackson was fouled and after pumping up the crowd, he hit both free throws to complete South Portland’s scoring.

Rugabirwa drove for a layup at the horn, but those two points were simply cosmetic as at 9:17 p.m., the final horn sounded and the Red Riots were able to celebrate their 52-42 victory and a repeat state championship.

“I’d say this (year) is almost better because no one thought we’d be able to do it,” said Jackson. “It feels good to be able to come back and do this again. I never doubted it, to be honest. I knew we’d play our best at the end of the year. When we closed with some big wins, I felt good with the momentum we had. I was a little nervous coming in here that I’d end my career with a loss. It was terrifying, but we pulled it off and I can’t even explain the feeling.”


“Our chemistry was clicking and we had momentum coming into the playoffs,” Smith said. “We were underdogs against TA and maybe this game too. We had to give it our all and we did and that’s what got us here. Last year’s experience helped us. A lot of teams haven’t played on this floor and it’s hard to play here. Our whole starting five and our sixth man played on this floor last year. We’re comfortable here. We felt like we could out-run teams and make shots.”

“It feels amazing,” said Kim. “I believed we could win it from the start. We had a deep bench last year and a lot of teams didn’t have that, so that was unique for us. We had to win on the glass tonight. They had size and we had to be physical.”

“It’s awesome,” Millington added. “It feels good to beat Portland since they’re our rival. One of the reasons I’m coaching is because I fell in love with those (1979 and 1980) teams. It’s hard to act like we’re the same as them. They’re gods to me. It’s very sweet they’re going to put (2022-23) on the banner. It’s definitely different this year, but we appreciate how hard it was.

“We knew Portland wouldn’t quit. We had to work for this one. Our shot selection wasn’t good there for a stretch. We rushed shots. We weren’t going to run away with it. Like (Portland) Coach (Joe) Russo said, he wanted another quarter and I didn’t want another quarter. It’s not really about us, it’s about the kids. He’s always gracious in defeat. He doesn’t lose much.”

Smith was superb in his swan song, not only leading all scorers with 19 points, but also grabbing five rebounds and dishing out three assists.

“I feel like I’m playing like this because my teammates gave me confidence,” Smith said. “They build me up a lot if I miss shots.”


“(Ben’s) our ‘midrange merchant,’ that’s all I can say,” said Kim.

“I’ve seen Ben do that multiple times,” Jackson said. “He’s a really good basketball player. He’s slept on because we produce a lot of great basketball players, but he’s one of them.”

Kim sizzled in the second half, scoring all 13 of his points. He also grabbed four rebounds.

“I’ve known Jayden for a long time,” Jackson said. “He’s a talented kid and he doesn’t fold under pressure.”

Jackson bowed out with 12 points and six rebounds.

“It’s more special to beat Portland since I grew up over there,” said Jackson. “I just love the South Portland community. You saw the stands were full. The student section was loud and supportive and I appreciate them. Coach ‘Milli’ is awesome. He’s helped me all four years.”


“(Jaelen’s) a good leader,” Smith said. “The way he sees the floor helps us a lot. I love that kid. We have the two best guards in the state. We’re tough to stop.”

“Jaelen is amazing,” Kim said. “He’s such a great ball-handler. He takes pressure off everyone else.”

“Jaelen is the epitome of our team, our character, our toughness,” Millington added. “He’s a winner. They face-guarded Jaelen last time and we knew they’d do that and be all over him. They’re so athletic and tough. I thought Jaelen did a great job staying within himself. We used him as a screener a lot. That freed up some guys and we had to make some shots and we did.”

Galarraga had three points and four blocked shots, while Hanlon also had three points and Hidalgo finished with two. Heffernan (four rebounds), senior Drew Folley and junior Nafees Padgett also played key minutes off the bench.

The Red Riots made six 3-pointers to the Bulldogs’ five, hit 12-of-16 free throws and overcame 11 turnovers.

End of the line


Portland was paced by double-doubles from both Khamis (13 points, 11 rebounds) and Wani (11 points, 10 rebounds). Rugabirwa added seven points, Toher had six (to go with four assists, three rebounds and two steals) and Donato bowed out with five points.

The Bulldogs had a 31-29 edge in the glass, made 9-of-15 free throws and committed 11 turnovers.

“We got in a hole in the beginning and had a nice comeback,” Russo said. “The kids kept their heads and we battled back. I got away from spreading the floor. It’s an effective offense, but it’s a one-and-done offense. I’m going to have to live with that. What hurt us was Ben Smith’s jump shots. He hit tough shots. Hats off to him. Jayden Kim hit those big 3s. Those were back-breakers. We were chasing at the end and that made it tough.

“It was a great year. The kids were awesome. I thought they did some nice things tonight. They tried. They gave it their all. We went down fighting. I feel for our players. It’s hard to tell the kids about what they did from day one to tonight. They were so successful, but they don’t know it yet. I told them that, but it’s not sinking in. They were super-successful this year. They just don’t feel it right now. They learned lessons and built character. These seniors did some really nice things.”

Following the game, Russo wouldn’t commit to whether or not he’d return next winter. Regardless, Portland should be on the short list of contenders in 2023-24.

“The program is very healthy,” Russo said. “Good players are coming back.”


How about a three-peat?

After failing to bring home a Gold Ball for three decades, South Portland is making winning championships a habit.

Without question, the loss of Jackson, an all-time program great, will be felt. Smith, Hanlon and Heffernan are other key contributors who will depart, but this program simply reloads.

Next winter, Galarraga and Kim will lead the way, while others will step into bigger roles.

Another title run could be the end result.

“They still have Gabe, Jayden, Manny and Nafees, so I think they’ll be good again and I think they can possibly three-peat if they’re playing their best basketball at the end of the year,” Jackson said.

“I’d love to do it one more time,” said Kim. “We have so much talent coming up. A lot of guys coming off the bench like Nafees and Manny, so I think we can win again.”

“I like our team next year,” Millington added. “We’ll be different from this year and last year, so we’ll have to figure it out.”

Don’t bet against them.

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

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