PORTLAND—If you closed your eyes Thursday evening at the Portland Exposition Building, you might have thought that the tournament was already upon us.

That’s because the ancient building was rocking and there was no separation between two talented teams in a game that came down to the final horn.

Portland hosted Windham in a Class AA North showdown and in an entertaining, back-and-forth affair, neither contender gave an inch.

The Bulldogs started fast, racing to a 9-2 lead before holding a 13-9 advantage after one quarter.

The Eagles then got their high-powered attack going in the second period, but still trailed by three, 30-27, at the half.

Windham took its first lead in the third quarter and twice went ahead by four points, but a 3-pointer from junior Drew Veilleux pulled Portland even, 45-45, heading for the final stanza.


There, a free flowing contest turned into a rock fight, but Windham opened up a four-point lead with 3:46 remaining after senior Beni Ninziza made a layup.

But the Bulldogs saved their best for last and after senior Kevin Rugabirwa tied the score on a layup with 2:35 to go, Veilleux’s foul shot 49 seconds later put the home team in front, 52-51.

Sophomore Cordell Jones added a layup, but senior Quinton Lindsay countered with a layup before sophomore Tyrie James made a free throw with 12.3 seconds remaining to tie the score, 54-54.

Two seconds later, Rugabirwa was fouled and he hit one of two attempts to give Portland a slim advantage.

The Eagles would get the final look, as James took a shot as time wound down, but it was off the mark and the Bulldogs held on for a palpitating 55-54 victory.

Portland improved to 12-2 and in the process, dropped Windham to 13-2.


“That was a great high school basketball game,” said longtime Bulldogs coach Joe Russo, after his 475th victory as the coach of his alma mater. “I could tell by the crowd that there was a lot of excitement. They got to watch a nailbiter or a hair-puller, depending on who you were cheering for. Both teams did a great job and gave them an entertaining game.”

Heavyweight bout

Portland and Windham, along with Cheverus, have clearly been the teams to beat in Class AA North this season and the Bulldogs and Eagles each have enjoyed regular season success.

Portland 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), then righted the ship with a 58-51 victory at rival Deering. After handling visiting Oxford Hills in a playoff rematch (54-31), Portland defeated visiting Thornton Academy (60-46), Edward Little (79-48) and South Portland (67-43).

Windham, meanwhile, started by downing visiting Lewiston (47-31) and Scarborough (49-41). After an 85-10 victory at Bangor, Windham closed the 2023 portion of its schedule by defeating visiting Bonny Eagle (69-53) and host Thornton Academy (52-40). The Eagles then rallied for a 67-62 overtime win over Cheverus before beating Lewiston (74-62), Portland (52-47), Falmouth (59-41) and Westbrook (52-39). After falling from the unbeaten ranks with a 67-40 setback at Gorham, Windham got back on track, defeating Edward Little (68-54), Oxford Hills (57-42) and Bangor (69-50).

In the teams’ first meeting, Jan. 6, sophomore Adrian Moody scored 13 points to lead the Eagles to victory. Senior Jeissey Khamis had 16 for the Bulldogs, but it wasn’t enough.


Thursday, both teams enjoyed runs, endured lulls and got contributions from players expected and unexpected, but ultimately, one point proved to be the difference.

Portland junior Drew Veilleux and Windham senior Quinton Lindsay reach for a loose ball early in the Bulldogs’ 55-54 victory Thursday. Hoffer photos.

A Jones free throw opened the scoring 30 seconds in, then Rugabirwa continued his torrid shooting of late, hitting a 3-pointer, before taking a pass from Khamis and making another 3 for a quick 7-0 advantage.

With 5:11 to go in the opening quarter, a Moody jump shot got the Eagles on the board, but after senior Blake McPherson picked up his second foul for the visitors, Khamis scored his first points on a short jumper.

James countered with a 3, then junior Creighty Dickson made a layup to cut the deficit to two.

After Jones scored on a putback, Dickson made another layup, but with 38 seconds left, Khamis drove for a layup and Portland took a 13-9 lead to the second period.

There, the scoring pace picked up.


Rugabirwa sank a third 3 to start the frame, but the next seven points went to Windham, as Lindsay made a layup after a steal from junior reserve Conor Janvrin, James knocked down a 3 and after Veilleux was whistled for his third foul and had to sit, two James foul shots with 5:02 on the clock tied the score, 16-16.

The Bulldogs went back in front 14 seconds later, as Khamis got a leaner to fall while being fouled, then he completed the old-fashioned three-point play with a free throw.

After Rugabirwa added a foul shot, the teams went back-and-forth the rest of the half.

Janvrin made a bank shot for the Eagles, but Khamis countered with a putback.

After Lindsay spun and banked home a shot, senior James Johnson drove for a layup and after Janvrin scored on a finger roll, Johnson set up Khamis for a layup.

With 1:50 remaining in the half, Moody blocked a shot at the defensive end, then set up James for a transition 3 to cut the deficit to just one, 26-25.


Johnson answered with a driving layup and after Moody again made it a one-point game with a jumper, sophomore Lucas LeGage was fouled with 4.1 seconds showing and he made both free throws to give Portland a 30-27 halftime advantage.

In the first half, Khamis dominated with 11 points and eight rebounds and Rugabirwa added 10 points, while Windham was paced by James’ 11 points.

There would be little separation in the second half as well.

A 3-ball from McPherson tied the score out of the break, but Rugabirwa drove for a layup to put the Bulldogs back in front.

After James set up Moody for a tying layup, Rugabirwa drove to the rim and finished, but after Moody tied the score with a leaner, Lindsay stole the ball and drove for a bank shot with 5:18 remaining in the third quarter to give the Eagles their first lead, 36-34.

Senior Pepito Girumugisha tied the score with a layup, but Moody countered with two free throws and with 4:06 showing, after another Moody blocked shot, Janvrin set up Moody for a layup and a 40-36 advantage.


A rarely seen sequence then ensued.

Thirty-one seconds later, Windham was poised to add to its lead, as Lindsay went to the line. He made his first free throw before the officials came over the scorer’s table and after a consultation, ruled that since the Portland foul was offensive, the foul shot never should have been awarded and while the Eagles got possession of the ball, the point was taken away.

At that point would loom extra large later in the evening.

Girumugisha made a layup for the Bulldogs, but James converted a layup at the other end.

After Johnson drove for a layup, Janvrin set up McPherson for a layup to make it 44-40.

Again, Portland finished a quarter strong, as Girumugisha set up Khamis for a layup and after McPherson got a point back at the free throw line, Veilleux tied the score with a 3-pointer with 1:40 to play.


Windham was then content to run the clock down, but couldn’t convert, as Janvrin missed a shot and after a Rugabirwa bid was off target, the game went to the fourth period deadlocked at 45-45.

The frenetic pace of the third quarter was still evident in the first minute of the fourth, as James and Khamis traded layups, but points would come at a premium the rest of the way.

With 4:09 left, after nearly three scoreless minutes, James’ runner in the lane put the Eagles in front and 23 seconds later, on the fast break, James set up Ninziza for a layup and a 51-47 lead.

Russo then called timeout and the Bulldogs would finish strong.

First, with 3:27 to go, Veilleux, despite playing with four fouls, drove for a layup to make it a one possession contest.

Then, with 2:35 left, Girumugisha set up Rugabirwa for a layup to tie the score.


With 1:46 on the clock, Veilleux drove to the basket, made contact with McPherson and for a split second, time stood still as both teams intently waited to find out who had picked up his fifth foul.

The call would be a block, meaning McPherson’s night was done while allowing Veilleux to go to the line.

Veilleux made the first free throw, but missed the second and for the first time since the score was 34-32, Portland clung to the lead.

With 1:32 left, James appeared to put the visitors on top with a bank shot, but much to the chagrin of the Eagles players, coaches and fans, he was called for a travelling violation instead.

At the other end, Moody blocked a Jones shot, but the ball stayed with the Bulldogs and at the 1 minute mark, Jones drove for a layup to give his team a 54-51 lead.

With 36 seconds to go, Lindsay drove for a layup to cut the deficit back to one and after Girumugisha missed two free throws and Lindsay got the rebound, the ball came to James, who was fouled with 12.3 seconds to go.


James missed the first free throw, but out of a timeout, he made the second to tie the score for the ninth and final time.

Portland then got a break, as Rugabirwa was fouled in the backcourt with 10.8 seconds remaining.

Rugabirwa went to the line and sank his first attempt.

Portland senior Kevin Rugabirwa knocks down the winning foul shot.

“There was a lot of pressure,” Rugabirwa said. “It’s a little different because the game was on the line. I took a deep breath and made it.”

“I told him to take his time and to block the noise out and make the free throw,” Khamis said. “I was confident he’d make it.”

“We put Kevin in a spot where if they were going to foul, we wanted him getting fouled,” Russo added. “We want him touching the ball at the end of a game because he’s clutch.”


The second free throw was off target and Ninziza got the rebound.

Windham coach Chad Pulkkinen then called timeout with 7.2 seconds showing and the visitors had a chance to win it.

Even though James was double teamed by Veilleux and Rugabirwa out of the break, Janvrin managed to inbound the ball to him regardless and James drove toward the lane. He managed to get past a defender and hung in the air just before the horn and got an open, albeit difficult look.

James floated up a potential game-winning shot, but it was long, Girumugisha got the rebound and at 9:16 p.m., the horn sounded as the Bulldogs held on to prevail in a white knuckler, 55-54.

Portland senior Pepito Girumugisha jumps for joy at the final horn.

“Coach told us to stay in front of (James) and don’t foul,” Rugabirwa said. “I just stood in front of him. They got a screen and Jeissey helped and he missed. It was happiness and relief when he missed. We played with intensity and played together and stayed as one. We wanted to get revenge from last time. We expected it to be a good game. There were a lot of fans, it was really loud, a good atmosphere. It was a great game overall.”

“We started off slow, but in the locker room at halftime, we talked it out and knew we had to pick it up in the second half,” said Khamis. “They were ranked number one and people thought we couldn’t beat them. We had to show everyone that we could.”


“I was nervous when that last shot went up,” Russo added. “(James is) a crafty player. He’s elusive. Both teams tried to win and tried to give it away. It came down to the last possession. It’s nice to have exciting games like that. It’s more fun to win. Windham’s a very, very good team. They execute. They’re organized. They know where they are.

“I liked how we regrouped in the fourth quarter. We didn’t play well in the third. We turned the ball over and didn’t play good defense. Those aren’t good ingredients for success. The kids helped right the ship. We had to take advantage of rebounding. There were some big plays. Drew’s 3 got us going at one point. Kevin made some nice shots. Jeissey is banged up, but he had a really good game.”

Rugabirwa led the way with 17 points and his 17th was the biggest of the game.

Khamis had another double-double, scoring 15 points and adding 15 rebounds and four steals.

Johnson had six big points off the bench and Veilleux also tallied six despite foul trouble. Jones had five points (as well as six rebounds and a pair of blocked shots), while Girumugisha had four (to go with four assists and three rebounds) and LeGage two.

Portland enjoyed a 33-25 edge on the glass and overcame 7-of-14 foul shooting and 17 turnovers.


Windham’s effort was paced by James, who had a game-high 18 points, to go with four assists. Moody also finished in double figures with a dozen points (to go with four steals, two blocks and two rebounds). Lindsay had eight points (four rebounds, three assists and three steals), McPherson six, Dickson (four rebounds) and Janvrin (five rebounds, three assists, two steals) four apiece and Ninziza two.

The Eagles sank 6-of-10 free throws and only committed 14 turnovers, but wound up one point short.

“We were down a senior starter (Erik Bowen), but we showed our depth and bench and that we can play with anybody,” Pulkkinen said. “I’m proud of the guys’ fight. Hats off to Portland, they earned the win. It was a good game. I thought we were in a good position. We were in the bonus and tried to be smart with the basketball. We had opportunities. We had a chance to go up on the foul line, then we had a chance to win at the end. That’s where you want to be. Tyrie can create for himself well. We set a good screen, but it didn’t work out.”

Two weeks left

Windham, still ranked first in the Class AA North Heal Points standings, has another huge road test upcoming Tuesday when it goes to Cheverus. Home games versus Oxford Hills and Edward Little then close out the regular season schedule.

“We’re a one-game-at-a-time team,” Pulkkinen said. “We weren’t overlooking Portland. We wanted to come out and play our best basketball. We hit a lot of adversity, but that’s fine because it will just make us better. Now we’ll concentrate on Cheverus. They’re an unbelievable team that’s playing really good basketball. It’ll be an exciting game. The guys will be ready to get back on the court.”


Portland (which is third in Class AA North) is back in action Tuesday at Oxford Hills. After hosting Lewiston and Bangor, the Bulldogs close with a critical test at Cheverus.

“We’re getting better,” Khamis said. “I like this team.”

“(This was) a good game to win,” said Rugabirwa. “We’ll probably see (Windham) again. Now, we just have to keep getting better.”

“We have to focus on taking care of business because it’s a marathon, not a sprint,” Russo added. “There’s some things we need to clean up. We have to make sure we’re ready and do a better job executing.”

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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