PORTLAND—The triumphant road show of Cheverus’ boys’ basketball team made a stop on the big stage Thursday evening at the Portland Exposition Building where the Stags got pushed by reigning Class AA North champion Portland in an early season showdown of unbeatens.

And while its execution wasn’t perfect, Cheverus’ record remains just that, thanks to a valiant 32-minute effort.

The Bulldogs came out sizzling, embarking on a 10-0 first quarter run and holding an 18-12 advantage after eight minutes.

The Stags then countered Portland’s surge with an even more impressive run, scoring 15 consecutive points in one stretch to go on top to stay.

Cheverus held a 31-25 halftime advantage, thanks in part to 11 points from junior Leo McNabb, as well as a strong showing inside from sophomore Jameson Fitzpatrick.

Both teams’ offenses went on hiatus in the second half and despite going up by nine points, 44-35, after the third period, the Stags couldn’t completely shake the Bulldogs.


Portland drew within five points on a leaner from senior Kevin Rugabirwa with 1:51 to play, then got as close as four when sophomore Cordell Jones scored on a putback inside the final minute, but a late free throw from senior Gio St. Onge slammed the door and Cheverus held on for a 49-44 victory.

McNabb (14 points) and Fitzpatrick (10 points) each finished in double figures as the Stags started 4-0 for the first time since 2015 and in the process, dropped the Bulldogs to 4-1.

“It was a good win,” said Cheverus coach Richie Ashley. “A good test. I told the guys before the game, win or lose, there’s no Gold Ball given out tonight. It was a really good measuring stick on where we are and what need to improve. (Portland’s) a great team with a great coach. They’ll be there at the end, so it’s nice to come win here on the big floor.”

Early favorites

Portland got to the Class AA state final a year ago, where it lost to South Portland, 52-42. The Bulldogs have some new faces in new places this winter, but remain strong, as evidenced by season-opening victories at Bangor (82-45), Bonny Eagle (64-53) and Edward Little (53-49) and Tuesday’s home win over Deering (56-46).

As for Cheverus, which got to the AA North semifinals last season, it opened with a 58-49 home win over South Portland, then rolled past visiting Oxford Hills, 74-36, before holding off host Thornton Academy Tuesday, 66-64.


Last winter, the Bulldogs swept the Stags, twice winning by a mere three points (48-45 on the road and 46-43 at home).

Friday, in front of a good-sized crowd, Portland looked to do it again, but instead, it would be Cheverus remaining unbeaten on the season.

Portland junior Drew Veilleux drives on Cheverus junior Maddik Weisberg during the Stags’ 49-44 victory Thursday. Hoffer photos.

The Bulldogs struck first, as senior Pepito Girumugisha drove for a layup 48 seconds in. Senior Jeissey Khamis added a jumper and after Cheverus got on the board on a driving left-handed layup from McNabb, Khamis drained another jump shot for a quick 6-2 lead.

The Stags responded, as Fitzpatrick took a pass from McNabb and made a layup, then Fitzpatrick hit a jumper to make it 6-6 with 5:34 remaining in the first quarter, but the rest of the frame would belong to Portland.

First, Khamis got a jumper to rattle home. Girumugisha then set up Rugabirwa for a 3-pointer and after senior James Johnson fed Rugabirwa for a layup after a steal, sophomore Cordell Jones banked home a 3 with 2:54 left to give the Bulldogs a 10-point advantage, 16-6.

With 1:46 remaining, junior Sammy Nzeyimana drove for a layup to end the run and a 3 minute, 48 second scoring drought, but Rugabirwa countered with two free throws.


Fitzpatrick hit a foul shot and McNabb buried a 3 from the corner, but that only pulled Cheverus within 18-12 heading to the second period.

But there, the Stags would turn the tables.

Consecutive baskets from senior Maddik Weisberg, the first a layup off a pass from St. Onge and the second a putback, cut the deficit to just two and forced longtime Portland coach Joe Russo to call timeout.

It didn’t help, as McNabb drove the lane, twisted around a defender and laid the ball home to tie it before junior Shema Rwaganje gave Cheverus the lead for the first time, and for good with a layup after a steal. McNabb added a free throw and St. Onge capped the 15-0 surge with another dizzying play, driving for a highlight reel reverse layup and a 23-18 lead with 4:18 to go before the half.

“We were a little anxious, but (Portland) came out with a really good plan and they executed well,” Ashley said. “Credit to them. We made some stops and clamped down defensively. When we do that and get in transition, we’re tough.”

Finally, with 3:20 showing, two free throws from junior Drew Veilleux ended a 6:08 drought, but McNabb immediately countered with another 3.


Rugabirwa got three points back with a shot from behind the arc, but again, the Stags had the answer, as St. Onge converted an old-fashioned three-point play, driving for a layup while being fouled, then adding the and-one free throw.

Fitzpatrick added a layup before a hook shot from Khamis pulled the Bulldogs within a half-dozen points, 31-25, at the half.

McNabb led the visitors with 11 first half points, while Rugabirwa kept Portland within hailing distance with 10 points of his own.

The scoring pace slowed down in the second half, but Cheverus was able to stay in front.

Cheverus junior Leo McNabb defends Portland senior Kevin Rugabirwa.

After Fitzpatrick opened the third period with a driving layup, Khamis answered with two free throws.

Nzeyimana then scored on a floater, but Johnson set up Khamis for a layup, then Veilleux sank two foul shots to make the score 35-31.


St. Onge countered with two foul shots, but Khamis made a jumper to cut the deficit to four again.

McNabb then came up huge, driving for a layup while being fouled before completing the three-point play.

St. Onge then fed junior Rocco DePatsy for a layup and after Khamis banked home a shot, St. Onge again found DePatsy for a layup and a 44-35 lead heading to the final stanza.

In the fourth quarter, Khamis tried to rally the Bulldogs with a driving, spinning layup and a free throw, but with 4:27 to play, after a 4:38 scoreless stretch, the Stags got a free throw from Fitzpatrick.

Rugarbirwa cut the deficit to 45-40 with 3:39 showing, thanks to two foul shots, and Portland had opportunities to draw closer, but with 1:58 to go, Nzeyimana drove for a layup.

Seven seconds later, Rugabirawa drove and finished to make it 47-42, but Nzeyimana got a point back at the line.


The Bulldogs had one last glimmer of hope when Jones scored on a putback with 25.1 seconds on the clock, but Cheverus was able to drain most of the clock before St. Onge was fouled with 2.7 seconds left. He made his first free throw and while he missed the second, it was enough to close the door on a 49-44 victory.

“We’re just all working together,” said McNabb. “It’s a lot of new players, a new team. We’re just well-balanced from bigs to guards and we’re good at finding each other. The pressure is hard, but the guards handled it well. It was fun, but it was tiring too.”

“The guys are realizing our mantra that the name on the front means more than the name on the back,” Ashley said. “With society today, that’s not easy to drill home, but these guys believe in that. If they do that, we can do something special.”

McNabb set the tone with a solid 14-point, six-rebound, two-assist, two-steal performance.

“My teammates just found me in the right spots,” said McNabb.

Fitzpatrick also wound up in double figures with 10 points, to go with six rebounds and a pair of blocked shots.


St. Onge added eight points, as well as six assists.

“Gio is a leader,” Ashley said. “He made some great passes. He played great defense too.”

Nzeyimana had seven points, DePatsy (three rebounds, two blocks) and Weisberg (four rebounds) four apiece and Rwaganje two.

“We had balanced scoring,” said Ashley. “We were really unselfish today. We got our bigs some good looks inside. Our bigs did a good job against Jeissey. The big difference compared to the past couple years is we hadn’t had someone to match up inside, but we do now. Maddik did a good job playing within himself.”

The Stags overcame 17 turnovers and made 9-of-15 free throws.

Portland was led by Khamis, who had a game-high 19 points and 11 rebounds, as well as four steals and two blocks.


“I have to give kudos to Jeissey, who played a heck of a game,” said Russo.

Rugabirwa added 14 points and five steals, Jones had five points, Veilleux four (to go with four rebounds and three blocks) and Girumugisha two.

The Bulldogs had a 30-25 rebounding advantage and made 11-of-14 free throws, while the turning the ball over on 13 occasions.

“I think the kids forgot that you play four quarters,” Russo lamented. “It was a nice start, but after the first quarter, we were out of our rhythm. For some reason, some kids got confused. We still hung there. I was surprised we were in the game because we played three quarters out of sync. We were one good shot away. Cheverus played like seasoned veterans, like it was championship week. That’s how well they played tonight. In control and organized. We had too many hiccups.”

No rest for the weary

Portland turns right back around and plays at South Portland Friday at 6 p.m. The Bulldogs are then idle before going to Lewiston Jan. 2.


“This game is history,” said Russo. “We don’t have time to dwell on this. We’ll play Cheverus two more times. Three games in a week is tough and three games with a back-to-back doesn’t give us a chance to digest. Nothing we can do about that, so we’ll regroup and play hard tomorrow. It’s still early for us and it doesn’t get any easier.”

Cheverus, meanwhile, has a busy remainder of the calendar year, traveling to Deering Saturday, to Scarborough next Thursday, then wrapping up the 2023 portion of the schedule Dec. 30 at home versus Lewiston.

“We just have to keep playing how we’re playing, together,” McNabb said. “We’re doing our thing and having fun. The future is bright, but there’s always something to improve.”

“We have a tough game Saturday, Deering is no layup,” Ashley said. “They’re athletic and can really play. We want to get better every day and have the guys have fun. Anytime you can start 4-0, I’m happy. We believe we can do some things, but we just have to take care of our business.”

Sports Editor Michael Hoffer can be reached at mhoffer@theforecaster.net. For game updates and links to game stories, follow him on Threads: @foresports2023

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