PORTLAND—Longtime Portland boys’ basketball coach Joe Russo wants his team to play on four wheels.

For the majority of this season, his Bulldogs have been playing on three.

But Friday evening at the Portland Exposition Building, for large stretches of time, Portland clicked on all cylinders and as a result, visiting Oxford Hills had little chance in a rematch of last year’s Class AA North Final.

The Bulldogs came out sizzling and in just over seven minutes, opened up an insurmountable 18-3 lead.

Portland then struggled for much of the second period before senior Kevin Rugabirwa drained three 3-pointers to help open up a 30-9 advantage at the half.

By the time the third quarter came to a close, Rugabirwa outscored the Vikings, 20-18, and while the Bulldogs eased up in the fourth period, they rolled to a 54-31 victory.


Rugabirwa led all scorers with 20 points as Portland improved to 8-2 on the season and in the process, dropped Oxford Hills to 4-5.

“We’ve been on three wheels, not four and we’re far from four wheels, but we’re better than three wheels now,” said Russo, after his 471st victory with the program.

Knockout blow

Oxford Hills stumbled out of the gate, losing to Edward Little (46-39) and Cheverus (74-36), but the Vikings found their footing by beating Brunswick (55-43), Mt. Ararat (46-45, in overtime) and Bangor (53-38). After a second loss to Cheverus (56-37), Oxford Hills fell to Lawrence (73-52), but Tuesday, the Vikings edged Bonny Eagle, 64-61, to get back to the .500 mark.

Portland, meanwhile, started by winning at Bangor (82-45), Bonny Eagle (64-53) and Edward Little (53-49), then held off visiting Deering (56-46) before falling at home to Cheverus, 49-44. After a 46-39 victory at South Portland in a rematch of last year’s Class AA state final, the Bulldogs won at Lewiston (60-42), lost at unbeaten Windham in a playoff rematch (52-47) and Tuesday, righted the ship with a 58-51 victory at rival Deering.

Last year, Oxford Hills won twice in the regular season, 48-47 in Portland and 62-52, in overtime, at home, but in the Class AA North Final, the Bulldogs had the last laugh, prevailing, 47-35.


Friday, Portland won again.

This time, with ease.

A layup from sophomore Cordell Jones put the Bulldogs ahead to stay with 6:14 left in the opening quarter.

Junior Drew Vielleux then knocked down a 3 and with 4:08 to go, Rugabirwa took a pass from senior Pepito Girumugisha and drained a 3 to make it 8-0, forcing longtime Vikings coach Scott Graffam to call timeout.

It didn’t help, as senior Jeissey Khamis took a pass from Jones and made a layup while being fouled, then added the free throw.

After junior Carter Holbrook got Oxford Hills on the board with a 3-pointer with 2:19 on the clock, Khamis answered with two free throws, then Rugabirwa made a layup after a steal before Veilleux set up Jones for a 3 and a commanding 18-3 advantage after eight minutes.


“It was just good basketball,” said Rugabirwa. “We passed the ball well, we moved to open slots and we made shots.”

“Oxford Hills is better than they played tonight, but I could tell they weren’t quite ready,” Russo said. “We didn’t want to let them get their confidence. We wanted to get going early. We shot better tonight than we have been and that helped. We were patient on offense and made an extra pass. We were in a rhythm.  It was pleasing to see our defense. We pushed the ball, but we took our time.”

Portland took awhile to build on its lead in the second period, but after a sluggish start, it would do just that.

Nineteen seconds into the quarter, junior Brady Delamater made a layup for the Vikings and the score remained 18-5 until 4:28 was on the clock, when the Bulldogs reawakened and got a 3 from Veilleux to snap a 4 minute, 28 second scoring drought.

Delamater then hit a jumper, but Rugabirwa took a pass from Khamis in the corner and drained a 3-pointer, then the next time down the floor, Rugabirwa got another pass from Khamis and from the opposite corner, buried another 3.

“Jeissey is one of the best passers in the state,” Rugabirwa said. “He can score too, which is the threat, and he finds the open man.”


“When Kevin can get his feet set, he’s better,” Russo said. “He shot well tonight which was good to see, because he works hard. His patience made a world of difference.”

Rugabirwa hit another 3 before the end of the half, this one set up by Jones, and while sophomore Cameron Pulkkinen made a basket for the Vikings late, the Bulldogs were firmly in control and enjoyed a 30-9 advantage at the break.

Portland continued to pull away when the second half commenced.

Khamis started the third quarter with a 3-ball and Girumugisha added a contested leaner to make it 35-9.

After sophomore Brayden Murch made two foul shots for Oxford Hills, Khamis sank a pair of free throws, then Rugabirwa added another.

Delamater answered with a 3, then made two free throws, but Rugabirwa made a reverse layup, Jones sank a 3 and after taking a pass from Girumugisha, Jones made a reverse layup.


“It’s been fun,” said Jones, who transferred to Portland from Gorham this school year. “I have great teammates. They’ve welcomed me and showed me the ropes. Now, I’m getting more time and starting. I’m figuring out my role. I’m hoping to try to win as many games as possible, hopefully get back to the state championship and cap off the season with a win since football.”

Rugabirwa then sank a 3 for the Bulldogs’ biggest lead, 48-16.

After senior Holden Shaw took a pass from junior Eli Laverdiere and made a layup, senior Jake Carson hit a late 3 for the Vikings, but Portland was in firm control heading to the fourth period.

There, Oxford Hills fought hard to the end, as Laverdiere made a free throw and junior Brady Roy scored on a putback.

After junior Devin Walker scored on a bank shot, junior Mateta Antonio hit a jumper, then senior Josh Gribbin banked home a shot for the Bulldogs’ final points with 2:08 on the clock.

Down the stretch, the Vikings got a 3 from sophomore Jackson Stack, a layup from sophomore Carson Stevens and a jumper from Spencer, but it was far too little, too late and Portland prevailed, 54-31.


“It’s a good team win,” Russo said. “We wanted to get at them early and we did that. We had patience with their zone and hit some shots.”

Rugabirwa led all scorers with 20 points and he also produced three steals.

Jones added 10 points, four rebounds and three assists.

“(Cordell’s) a good addition to the team,” said Rugabirwa. “He’s athletic. He can rebound. He can shoot. He’s a good player overall.”

“Cordell is getting better and is learning what we do,” Russo said.

Khamis nearly had another double-double, scoring 10 points, grabbing nine rebounds and adding five steals, three blocked shots and three assists.


“Jeissey usually leads us in scoring and rebounds, but he also leads us in assists,” Russo said. “He’s looking to pass. We have to keep him healthy and keep him out of foul trouble.”

Veilleux finished with six points (and three steals), while Antonio, Girumugisha (five assists, three steals), Gribbin and Walker all had two points.

“The biggest key tonight was ‘Pep,’ who’s not a traditional point guard,” Russo said. “He’s running the team. Guards usually look to score first, but he played a beautiful floor game and only turned the ball over once.”

The Bulldogs made 10 3-pointers to the Vikings’ four, hit 6-of-7 free throws and turned the ball over 15 times.

Oxford Hills got seven points from Delamater, four apiece from Shaw and Spencer, three each from Carson (four rebounds), Holbrook (two steals) and Stack, two apiece from Mulch (four rebounds), Pulkkinen and Roy and one from Laverdiere.

The Vikings outrebounded Portland, 34-22, but only made 5-of-10 free throws and turned the ball over 30 times.


“They have a lot of experience, they’re physical, they’re fast and they play hard and we have a lot of JV guys trying to learn how to be varsity guys,” lamented Graffam. “We’re halfway through the season and just getting kids back from injuries. To Portland’s credit, we couldn’t get into our offense in the first half because of how well they played defensively. We weren’t prepared for their pressure in the halfcourt. We could have lost by 40, but Oxford Hills kids are tough.”

Second half action

Oxford Hills (currently ranked fourth in the Class AA North Heal Points standings) hopes to bounce back Tuesday, but will have to do so at home versus unbeaten Windham. The following night, the Vikings welcome a Mt. Blue squad, which at press time, is also undefeated and leads Class A North.

“We play undefeated teams Tuesday and Wednesday,” Graffam said. “We’ll stay optimistic. We want to get in (to the tournament) and see what happens.”

Portland (third in Class AA North) returns to action Monday at home versus a Thornton Academy team desperate for a key win. The Bulldogs host Edward Little Wednesday, then welcome South Portland next Saturday.

“We just have to keep building and keep winning,” Rugabirwa said. “Next week will be a tough week.”

“I think we can go a long way,” Jones said. “We have good leadership. Our team chemistry is great. Once we start scoring the ball more, we’ll be a very dangerous team.”

“We have to build on this,” Russo added. “We want to stay in the top three. I’ve been telling the kids it’s about how we’re performing. We have to understand our roles. We have three games next week that won’t be easy.”

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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