PORTLAND—Fourth quarter comebacks giveth and they taketh away.

Saturday afternoon at the Cross Insurance Arena, the third-ranked Portland boys’ basketball team, two days removed from a dramatic rally to defeat No. 2 Cheverus in the semifinals, had a completely different experience against top-seeded Windham in the Class AA North Final.

As this time, it was the Bulldogs that couldn’t hold a second half lead.

And as a result, their strong season has come to a close.

While the Eagles tasted history.

Windham held a 9-8 lead after one quarter, then got the first basket of the second period, but Portland closed the first half on a 12-2 run to enjoy a 20-13 advantage at the break.


The Bulldogs scored the first five points of the second half and appeared poised to pull away, but instead, the Eagles responded, creeping within three, 27-24, heading to the fourth period.

There, Windham went on top to stay when senior Blake McPherson converted a three-point play with 3:27 remaining, then sophomore Tyrie James made seven key free throws down the stretch to help the Eagles pull away and prevail, 43-34.

McPherson led all scorers with 16 points, James added a dozen and Windham improved to 18-2, won a regional title for the first time in program history, set up a Class AA state final showdown versus Gorham (18-2) next Saturday at 8:45 p.m., at the Cross Insurance Arena, and in the process, ended Portland’s fine season at 16-5.

“It’s just a resilient group,” said Eagles coach Chad Pulkkinen. “These guys have dreamed about this day. We have great kids with talent, that’s the recipe for a great team. Not a lot of people thought we’d be here. The guys wanted to prove everybody wrong.”


The root of Windham’s success this year can be traced to last year’s 49-46 loss at Portland in the quarterfinals, where the Eagles played well enough to beat the eventual regional champions but ultimately fell just short. Despite the result, Windham gained the confidence it could become an elite team and with a lot of talent back this year, that’s exactly what happened (see sidebar for links to previous stories).


The Eagles won 16 of 18 regular season games, losing only at Portland and Gorham, and earned the top seed in Class AA North. After earning a bye into the semifinals, Windham eliminated No. 4 Lewiston, 57-44, Thursday.

The Bulldogs, meanwhile, were content flying under the radar and produced their usual solid season, a 14-4 campaign, good for the No. 3 seed. Portland lost only to Cheverus (twice), Windham and Oxford Hills. After ousting N0. 6 Edward Little ease in the quarterfinals (70-30), the Bulldogs rallied for an improbable 49-48 win over No. 2 Cheverus Thursday in the semifinals, erasing an eight-point deficit in the final minutes.

The teams split this winter, with Windham holding on for a 52-47 home win Jan. 6 and host Portland squeaking out a 55-54 decision Jan. 25. In the Eagles’ victory, sophomore Adrian Moody had 13 points, while senior Jeissey Khamis led the Bulldogs with 16. In Portland’s win, senior Kevin Rugabirwa scored 17 points (including the decisive free throw) and Khamis added 15 to help neutralize an 18-point performance from James.

The Bulldogs had won two of three prior playoff meetings (see sidebar), with last year’s game the most recent.

Saturday, Portland had a chance to do it again, but in the second half, Windham showed why it’s going to play for a state championship next week.

The teams went back-and-forth in the first quarter.


A driving layup from senior James Johnson, Thursday’s hero, gave Portland the lead 24 seconds in, but junior Creighty Dickson countered with a 3-pointer, then added a free throw the next time down the floor.

After Khamis tied the score on a putback, McPherson converted an old-fashioned three-point play (putback, foul, free throw) to put Windham up three, but the Bulldogs came back on a jumper from sophomore Cordell Jones and another by classmate Lucas LeGage before two late free throws from James put the Eagles up, 9-8, after one period.

When McPherson opened the second quarter with a runner in the lane, longtime Portland coach Joe Russo called timeout and his team responded.

Big time.

First, senior Pepito Girumugisha drove for a layup.

Then, with 6:11 left in the half, Khamis threw a long pass ahead to Rugabirwa, whose layup gave Portland the lead.


After Jones buried a 3 up top, Dickson blocked a shot at the defensive end, then made a driving layup on offense, but LeGage buried a 3, then, after a technical foul on the Eagles, Khamis made two free throws for a 20-13 halftime advantage.

Jones and LeGage led the Bulldogs with five points apiece in the half.

Portland opened up its lead even more in the third quarter before Windham came storming back.

After a Girumugisha steal to open the second half, he fed Rugabirwa in the corner for a 3-ball. Khamis then banked home a shot despite contact.

Making matters worse for the Eagles, Dickson busted open his lip after a collision, had to come out and be attended to by athletic trainer Casey Sinclair.

Dickson would eventually return and help spark the comeback.


Finally, with 4:57 remaining in the frame, McPherson tipped in his own miss to end the Bulldogs’ 10-0 run and a 7 minute, 41 second scoring drought.

Senior Quinton Lindsay then drove for a layup and McPherson added two foul shots to cut a 12-point deficit in half, but Johnson responded by driving through traffic for a layup.

That would be it for Portland’s offense in the quarter, however, and Windham crept closer, as Lindsay countered with a bank shot, James made a layup, then hit a free throw to cut the deficit to 27-24 heading to the fourth period.

And the Eagles were just getting started, as they would not only catch the Bulldogs, but race past them to victory in the final stanza.

After Doughty and Moody missed potential game-tying 3-pointers, McPherson set up Lindsay for a layup with 5:04 on the clock and the margin was one.

A Rugabirwa putback with 4:23 remaining ended Portland’s 6:30 drought and pushed the lead back to three, but McPherson banked home a shot 14 seconds later and with 3:27 left, McPherson drove, made a layup while being fouled and added the and-one free throw for the old-fashioned three-point play and the lead, 31-29, Windham’s first since the score was 11-10.


Dicikson then pulled up a hit a bank shot and after a Rugabirwa shot went in-and-out, McPherson missed his own shot, but got the rebound, was fouled and sank both free throws to push the lead to 35-29 with just 1:54 on the clock.

Girumugisha got a point back at the line, but with 1:02 to go, James made it a three-possession contest with two more foul shots.

After Khamis made two free throws with 53.5 seconds showing, James sank two more free throws six seconds later, then he stole the ball, was fouled and hit one more free throw to essentially ice it.

“I just practice free throws every day,” James said. “It’s just repetition. I just take a deep breath before I do my routine.”

LeGage scored on a putback with 31 seconds left, but that proved to be the Bulldogs’ final points of the season.

After James made two more foul shots, Moody added one more and at 5:17 p.m., Windham rushed the court in jubilation, as its 43-34 victory, and more importantly, first-ever regional championship, was official.


“It means a lot,” McPherson said. “It feels great. We got the most wins in Windham history, which felt amazing, and now it’s the first time we’re going to states, and that’s incredible. We had a little adversity and we needed to handle it. We talked over what we needed to work on and we worked on it in the fourth quarter and it came out in our favor. I was a little nervous, but I knew we could come back. I knew it wasn’t over.”

“We had a lot of adversity and most teams fold in those situations, but our guys stuck together no matter what and great things happened,” Pulkkinen said. “I’m proud of our fight.

“We were a little more patient on offense in the second half. We got reversals and attacked close outs. The guys started to believe and when you start to believe, great things happen.

“It was my dream to take over the program from (Kevin) Millington. I played for him. I live in Windham, my business is in Windham, I love Windham. We just have a great youth program, a great tight-knit community. This means a lot.”

McPherson, who was named regional tournament MVP, led the way with 16 points (11 after halftime), as well as nine rebounds, three assists and a pair of steals.

James added 12 points (with 10 coming from the free throw line) and four rebounds.


Dickson, who was beaten and bloodied, yet ultimately triumphant, finished with eight points and five rebounds.

“(Creighty’s) just a tough kid,” said Pulkkinen. “He’s a true basketball player. He lives and breathes it. If he could still crawl, he was going to stay on the court. The crowd went nuts for him. That was a sign we weren’t backing down.”

Lindsay had six points, four rebounds, three steals and two assists and Moody tallied one point, five rebounds and four steals.

The Eagles out-rebounded Portland, 34-24, drained 18-of-21 free throws (86 percent) and overcame 13 turnovers.

Windham’s first-ever appearance in a state final will come against a Gorham squad which it lost to Jan. 15 in Gorham (67-40).

“We just need to make sure we’re together as a team,” said McPherson.


“This team’s history now,” Dickson said. “We’re going for that state ball, though. We need that state ball. We’ve just been working, working, working, all for this moment, and it truly is wonderful.”

“I’m excited to have another week with this special group,” Pulkkinen added. “We’ll bring all we’ve got.”

Not quite enough

Portland was paced by Khamis, who had eight points and 12 rebounds in his final game in a Bulldogs uniform. LeGage and Rugabirwa had seven points apiece, Jones five (to go with four rebounds), Johnson four (as well as three rebounds) and Girumugisha three (as well as three assists).

“Windham deserved to win,” Russo said. “We were trying to hang on to win and Windham’s defensive tenacity shut us down. It seemed like they were out of rhythm, but we couldn’t extend our lead. They took advantage of every opportunity they had and on the other hand, we couldn’t handle their pressure. We couldn’t get the ball to Jeissey. You won’t beat many teams scoring 34 points.

“Overall, it was a fantastic season. I didn’t honestly think we could do this, but the kids grinded. We overachieved. It’s a bitter end that we didn’t win after having a lead, but we enjoyed the journey to get here. Because we climbed so far, the fall hurts. We’ll lose some talent and quality kids.”

Press Herald staff writer Steve Craig contributed to this story.

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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