PORTLAND—Sometimes you lose in unthinkable fashion.

And sometimes, fortune smiles down upon you.

Portland’s boys’ basketball team, which was eliminated by rival Cheverus in the quarterfinals two years ago on a prayer at the buzzer, got to taste sweet revenge Thursday afternoon, 736 days later, in an unforgettable Class AA North semifinal at the Cross Insurance Arena.

The third-ranked Bulldogs led the second-seeded Stags much of the way, but Cheverus, which swept the regular season series, came to life in the second half and appeared to have the game won until Portland dug deep into its reservoir of championship heart, rallied to force overtime, then prevailed by a single point.


The Bulldogs started fast, riding an 8-0 run to a 12-6 lead after one quarter.


The teams went back-and-forth in the second period, as the Stags erased an eight-point deficit with an 8-0 run, but a late layup from senior Pepito Girumugisha gave the Bulldogs a slim 26-24 advantage at the half.

Portland twice went up by five in the third quarter, but junior standout Leo McNabb buried a long 3 just before the horn and Cheverus was only down a point, 33-32, heading to the fourth period.

There, the Stags continued to surge, roaring into the lead, and when senior Gio St. Onge made two free throws with 3:07 left, they had a seemingly safe 42-34 advantage.

But the Bulldogs refused to buckle and even though they were down 45-38 with 90 seconds to go, saved their absolute best for last.

After senior Jeissey Khamis made three free throws, sophomore sharpshooter Lucas LeGage added a critical 3-pointer to cut the deficit to just one and after McNabb made a free throw with 49 seconds left, Portland senior James Johnson scored on a putback with 2.5 seconds remaining, tying the score at 46-46 and sending the game to overtime.

There, after senior Kevin Rugabirwa scored on a runner to give the Bulldogs the lead, St. Onge tied the score with two free throws, setting up a frenetic finish.


With 17.1 seconds on the clock, sophomore Cordell Jones made the second of two free throws, but Cheverus would have not one, but two chances to repeat history and steal victory.

After McNabb’s 3-point shot was off the mark and Portland got possession, a turnover gave the Stags one last chance with under a second to go and McNabb got off a good look, but the shot just missed the mark and this time, it was the Bulldogs wresting victory from the jaws of defeat, 49-48.

Portland improved to 16-4, ended Cheverus’ fine season at 16-4 and in the process, set up a Class AA North Final showdown versus top-ranked Windham (18-2) Saturday at 3:45 p.m., at the Cross Insurance Arena.

“This time of year, you’re better to be lucky than good and we were lucky,” said longtime Bulldogs coach Joe Russo. “I told the kids before the game, you’re here to have fun and enjoy yourselves, but trust me, it’s more fun to win. We move on.”

Living up to billing

Cheverus and Portland have clearly been two of the three best teams (along with top-seeded Windham) in Class AA North this season and a semifinal round showdown seemed destined (see sidebar for links to previous stories).


The Stags enjoyed their best regular season in 13 years, winning 15 of 18 games, then had no trouble with No. 7 Bangor in the quarterfinals last week, 82-39, to reach the semifinals for the third straight season.

The Bulldogs, meanwhile, built on last year’s run to the state game with a solid 14-4 campaign, then ousted No. 6 Edward Little, 70-30, in the quarterfinals.

Cheverus won both meetings this year, 49-44 at the Expo Dec. 21 and 57-50 in the regular season finale Feb. 8.

The Stags had won just four of 13 playoff meetings over the past 50 years (see sidebar), but they did capture the most recent, a memorable 44-42 victory in the 2022 AA North quarterfinals, on Silvano Ismail’s improbable buzzer beater.

Cheverus had won three straight playoff meetings with the Bulldogs, who last beat the Stags in the 2007 Western A Final.

Thursday, Cheverus had its chances to prevail again, but Portland simply refused to lose and was able to advance to the regional final for the second year in a row.


Cheverus got a layup from McNabb 12 seconds in, but the next eight points went to Portland.

The Bulldogs tied it when Jones scored on a short jumper in the lane, then went ahead on consecutive 3-pointers from Johnson and Rugabirwa.

After St. Onge ended the 8-0 run and a 5 minute, 21 second scoring drought by driving for a layup, Jones scored on a putback and after McNabb made one free throw, senior Pepito Girumugisha scored on a putback.

St. Onge added a late free throw but after eight minutes, Portland had doubled up the Stags, 12-6.

Cheverus would rally in the second quarter to draw even before the Bulldogs went back on top again.

After Khamis opened the second period with a bank shot in traffic, the Stags rattled off eight straight points, as junior Rocco DePatsy set up freshman Nicola Plalum for a layup, McNabb rose in traffic and banked the ball home, then DePatsy put home a McNabb missed 3 to cut the deficit to 14-12, forcing Russo to call timeout, which didn’t help, as after a Portland turnover, St. Onge’s contested bank shot tied the score.


But with 4:26 to go in the half, Rugabirwa, on the move, drained a 3 to put the Bulldogs back in front.

After senior Daniel Amisi stretched the lead to five with a putback, back came Cheverus, as McNabb hit a 3 in the corner and junior Shema Rwaganje hit two foul shots to tie the score anew.

After Khamis hit two free throws, McNabb set up senior Maddik Weisberg for a tying layup and after Khamis set up sophomore Lucas LeGage for a 3, Rwaganje buried a 3 to seemingly send the game to the half even, but with just 2.4 seconds left, Girumugisha drove for a layup while being fouled. He missed the and-one free throw, but Jones got the offensive rebound with a chance to score, then his shot was just off and Portland clung to a 26-24 lead at the half.

Seven different Bulldogs scored in the first 16 minutes, while McNabb paced the Stags with eight points.

The Stags then drew within the brink of the lead in the third quarter.

The second half began with McNabb getting a look at a go-ahead 3-pointer, but he missed and after Jones made a free throw, Girumugisha drove for a layup.


McNabb answered with two foul shots, but Johnson hit two of his own for a five-point advantage.

After each team missed some golden chances, DePatsy converted a three-point play and after Jones hit two free throws, McNabb pulled up from behind the NBA 3-point line and buried his shot just ahead of the horn to pull Cheverus within a single point, 33-32, heading to the final stanza.

And there, the Stags seemingly seized control of the game, before Portland seized it back and it turned out that 32 minutes weren’t enough to determine a winner.

Junior Sammy Nzeyimana’s free throw tied the score 18 seconds into the fourth, then with 6:57 to play, McNabb set up DePatsy for a layup and Cheverus’ first lead since the score was 2-0.

After Khamis answered with a free throw, St. Onge scored on a putback, then DePatsy scored on a putback and with 3:52 remaining, St. Onge made one free throw for a 40-34 advantage.

St. Onge added two more foul shots with 3:07 on the clock, but the Bulldogs refused to buckle.


With 2:18 left, Girumugisha set up Khamis for a layup, ending a 12 minute, 33 second field goal drought and the Stags’ 16-3 run.

Sixteen seconds later, LeGage got a jumper to drop and an eight-point deficit had been cut to four.

With 1:51 on the clock, Rwaganje went to the line and made one of two attempts and after Cheverus kept possession, Nzeyimana inbounded to Rwaganje, who made a tough angle layup for a 45-38 advantage with just 1:47 to go.

The game then turned back in Portland’s favor, as with 1:29 to go, Khamis was fouled while shooting a 3 and he drained all three subsequent free throws.

After a McNabb miss, Rugabirwa set up LeGage for a 3 in transition and just like that, with 1:05 on the clock, the Bulldogs trailed by a single point.

The Stags then appeared to get they break they’d need to finish it off with 49.8 seconds showing, as McNabb was fouled by Khamis, his fifth, ending his afternoon.


McNabb missed his first free throw, but hit the second to make it 46-44.

The Bulldogs then needed almost every remaining second to pull even.

After Rugabirwa missed a 3, Jones got the rebound, but his shot was blocked by DePatsy and a held ball on the rebound allowed Portland to keep possession.

Out of a timeout, Girumugisha had a look at a tying layup, but it rimmed out and Rwaganje got the rebound and was fouled.

With 16.7 seconds to go, Rwaganje went to the free throw line with a chance to essentially ice it, but he missed both attempts and when Jones got the rebound, the Bulldogs still had life.

As time wound down, Rugabirwa’s runner was just off the mark, but Jones got the rebound. He missed his putback attempt, but Johnson was in the right place at the right time and scored on a putback with just 2.5 seconds to go, tying the score at 46-46.


“I was hoping the ball would go in, but I knew I was in the right spot and luckily the ball came to me and I was able to put it in,” Johnson said, of the biggest basket of his young life.

“James is undersized, but he can box out,” said Russo. “He was in position first. That’s the most important thing with rebounding. He got to where the ball was. He’s not a tall guy, but he works his butt off. He never goes away and I have to always go back to him.”

After Cheverus failed to get a shot off, the game went to overtime.

“We had the confidence that we could beat them going into overtime,” Jones said.

“We had momentum going into overtime,” Rugabirwa said.

In overtime, neither team could drum up much offense, but Portland did just enough to advance.


The Stags got the ball first, but Rwaganje missed a 3.

At the other end, LeGage missed a 3, but St. Onge missed a shot and with 2:32 remaining in the four-minute OT, Rugabirwa scored on a runner and the Bulldogs had their first lead since the score was 33-32.

After McNabb missed a 3, Portland had a chance to extend its lead, but turned the ball over and with 1:50 on the clock, St. Onge was fouled and hit both attempts to tie the score for the eighth and final time.

After Jones missed a shot, Cheverus had a chance to retake the lead, but LeGage forced a turnover.

The Bulldogs ran the clock down to 27 seconds, then called timeout and worked the ball around to Jones, who was fouled with 17.1 seconds remaining.

Jones went to the line and missed his first try, but he calmly buried the second and Portland clung to a one-point lead.


“I knew it would be tough,” Jones said, of his foul shots. “I had to battle adversity all game. My shots weren’t going down, but I was confident enough to make the second free throw.”

“We practice free throws every day,” Rugabirwa said. “(Cordell) missed one, but I knew he’d make the next one.”

The Stags would ultimately have two looks to win it, but it wasn’t to be.

First, McNabb took a 3 from way up top, but it was well short and deflected off a teammate out of bounds, meaning the Bulldogs only had to inbound the ball to lock up the victory.

Instead, Portland committed a travelling violation before throwing the ball in and suddenly, Cheverus got another chance with 0.8 seconds left, under its own basket.

Out of a timeout, the Stags got the look they wanted, as Nzeyimana inbounded to McNabb to the left of the hoop. McNabb elevated, faded away and fired a shot that appeared on target, but it was just off the mark.


“We couldn’t have asked for a better look than that, but we didn’t convert,” lamented Cheverus coach Richie Ashley. “Sometimes they go in and sometimes they don’t.”

“Thank God that shot didn’t go in,” Rugabirwa said. “It was relief, excitement when it didn’t.”

“It was scary, but I didn’t think that shot was going to go in,” said Jones.

“We tried to give it away at the very end,” Russo added. “I’ve done this so long, at this point, it comes down to making shots. They had the last shot. If it went in, they win. If they missed, we win. It’s all luck really. A lot of respect for Cheverus, but I’m not really sad because they beat us on that buzzer-beater two years ago and I didn’t sleep for four days.”

At 3:43 p.m., the Bulldogs were finally able to exhale and celebrate their 49-48 victory.

“We lost Jeissey and we were down seven, eight points, but we came together,” said Rugabirwa. “We had adrenaline even without Jeissey, our best player. You can’t beat a good team three times. We didn’t have any doubt we could come back. We stayed focused and came out with the win.”


“We came together as a team,” Jones said. “We fought adversity and got some big 3s.”

“We stuck together and did our fundamentals,” Johnson said. “We didn’t want to be done yet. It’s great to come in here and win.”

“We’re our own worst enemies and we’ve been like this all year,” Russo added. “We had so many opportunities but let them stay in the game. Cheverus played great. They worked hard, got loose balls and rebounded. The kids never gave up. We had some shots to get back in the game. We stopped going interior to exterior. We just changed our game plan without a big man in there. We had to live and die by the 3.”

Portland was led offensively by Khamis, who had 10 points, as well as 12 rebounds for a double-double, before he fouled out late in regulation.

Jones (nine rebounds), LeGage and Rugabirwa (eight rebounds, three assists) finished with eight points apiece, Girumugisha had six (as well as four rebounds), Johnson added seven (to go with six rebounds) and Amisi had two.

The Bulldogs had a big rebounding advantage (45-26, with 23 coming on the offensive glass), made 12-of-17 free throws and overcame 17 turnovers.


Picking up the pieces

Cheverus got 14 points from McNabb, as well as a dozen from St. Onge (to go with five rebounds and four steals) in his swan song. DePatsy had nine points, nine rebounds and three blocked shots and helped fill the void of sophomore Jameson Fitzpatrick, who was ill and missed the game. Rwaganje finished with eight points, Plalum and Weisberg each had two and Nzeyimana had one.

The Stags made 15-of-23 free throws and turned the ball over 12 times, but was ultimately left distraught.

“It’s a brutal loss,” said Ashley. “We just didn’t make the plays we needed to to close it out. The big one was the foul on Jeissey up seven. They hit three foul shots, then they knocked down a 3, so a seven-point lead went to one and they were back in it. We handled the pressure pretty well, but we had opportunities to make buckets and we didn’t. They were contested shots. Anytime Cheverus and Portland play, that’s what happens. It came down to foul shooting like it does in big games. This is a different venue. It’s not easy to shoot down here.

“We had a great year, but my concern right now is for those guys, especially the seniors. This isn’t an easy pill to swallow. The seniors bought in and gave it their all. Right now, it’s hard to find the words. I’m very appreciative of all they’ve given to this program.

“I think the future is bright. I hope so.”


Saturday showdown

Portland split with Windham this winter, falling on the road Jan. 6 (52-47), then holding on for a 55-54 home victory Jan. 25.

The Bulldogs have beaten the Eagles in two of three prior playoff encounters, including last year’s 49-46 quarterfinal round victory.

Portland will be the underdog Saturday afternoon, but after what we saw Saturday, do you want to write off the Bulldogs?

They’ll be confident, that’s for sure.

“It’s my time to shine,” Jones said. “I usually do my best in high pressure games.”

“It’ll be a great game,” said Rugabirwa. “We’ll come and compete and play better than we did today.”

“We have to rebound, limit our turnovers and just play our game,” Johnson said.

“I don’t think anybody expected us to be in the regional final, but here we are,” added Russo. “It won’t be easy. We’ll keep playing hard and have to overcome mistakes. Every game we go into we know we have a chance. We beat Windham, so we know we can play with them. They’re quality and make few mistakes.”

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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