Playoffs: Eagles upset comes up short, Portland moves on


AA North quarterfinal: #7-Windham vs. #2-Portland


Thursday, February 16, 2023

Portland 49, Windham 46

Pitia Donato’s offensive rebound and two free throws with 2.9 seconds left helped No. 2 Portland turn back an upset bid by seventh-seeded Windham as the Bulldogs held on for a 49-46 win in a Class AA North boys’ basketball quarterfinal Thursday night.

The Bulldogs (14-5) will take on No. 3 Lewiston in the semifinals next Thursday at Cross Insurance Arena.

Adrian Moody scored eight first-quarter points and Windham (5-14) had a 16-13 advantage at quarter’s end. But the Bulldogs responded with an 11-2 run in the second quarter before Windham rallied to make it 23-23 at the half.

Portland scored the first six points of the second half, but the Eagles answered with a 10-0 run, then took a 36-34 advantage to the fourth quarter after Creighty Dickson converted a three-point play at the horn.

The Bulldogs went ahead to stay on a 3-pointer from Pepito Girumugisha with 4:44 to play. Windham got within one point four different times after that but fell just short, as Blake McPherson’s three-quarter-court heave at the horn grazed the front of the rim.

Kevin Rugabirwa led all scorers with 15 points. Remijo Wani added eight for Portland.

The Eagles were paced by 11 points from Moody.

Moody, Adrian03211
Combes, Owen2129
McPherson, Blake1127
Lindsay, Quinton3028
Dickson, Creighty2015
Bowen, Erik0000
Ninziza, Beni0000
James, Tyrie0206
Charles, Kennedy0022
Toher, Brady0114
Wani, Remijo41011
Donato, Pitia1149
Khamis, Jeissey1013
Rugabirwa, Kevin14115
Veilleux, Drew0000
Girumugisha, Pepito1105

Portland boys fend off Windham’s upset bid in quarterfinals

Bulldogs hold on for a 49-46 victory, advance to meet Lewiston in semifinals.

PostedFebruary 17, 2023Michael HofferThe Forecaster

11 min read

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Portland’s Pepito Girumugisha, right, and Kevin Rugabirwa celebrate a 49-46 win over Windham in a Class AA South quarterfinal Thursday at the Portland Expo. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

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PORTLAND—Lightning didn’t strike twice.

But did it ever come close.


Portland 49 Windham 46

W- 16 7 13 10- 46
P- 13 10 11 15- 49

W- Moody 3-2-11, Combes 3-2-9, Lindsay 3-2-8, McPherson 2-2-7, James 2-0-6, Dickson 2-1-5

P- Rugabirwa 5-1-15, Wani 5-0-11, Donato 2-4-9, Girumugisha 2-0-5, Toher 1-1-4, Khamis 1-1-3, Charles 0-2-2

W (7) Moody 3, James 2, Combes, McPherson
P (8) Rugabirwa 4, Donato, Girumugisha, Toher, Wani

W- 11
P- 15

Free throws
W: 9-9
P: 9-12


Season preview

Portland 42 Bonny Eagle 28

Portland 55 Deering 42

Portland 45 Edward Little 43

Oxford Hills 48 Portland 47

Portland 46 Cheverus 43

Portland 44 Falmouth 41

South Portland 47 Portland 46

Previous Portland-Windham tournament results

2018 Class AA North semifinal
Windham 55 Portland 53

2015 Western A quarterfinal
Portland 57 Windham 50

Thursday evening at the James Banks Portland Exposition Building, Portland’s boys’ basketball team again found itself in a down-to-the-wire Class AA North quarterfinal round contest.

But this time, the ball bounced in the Bulldogs’ favor and as a result, they live to play another day.

Hosting No. 7 Windham, a team that second-seeded Portland beat twice with relative ease in the regular season, the Bulldogs learned quickly that nothing would come easily in a win-or-go-home scenario.

Eight points from freshman Adrian Moody gave the Eagles an early lead, but a late 3-pointer from junior Kevin Rugabirwa gave Portland a slim 16-13 advantage after eight minutes.

The Bulldogs took a momentary five-point lead early in the second period, but Windham roared right back and when junior Quinton Lindsay made two free throws in the final minute, the contest was deadlocked, 23-23, at the break.

Portland threatened to pull away when Rugabirwa and senior Remijo Wani drained 3-pointers to start the second half, but again, the Eagles rose off the deck and scored 10 straight points and after the Bulldogs got five quick points from senior Pitia Donato, an old-fashioned three-point play at the horn from sophomore Creighty Dickson gave Windham an improbable 36-34 advantage heading to the fourth quarter.

There, with 4:44 remaining, a 3-ball from junior Pepito Girumugisha finally put Portland ahead to stay, but the Eagles pushed the Bulldogs all the way to the final horn before they could celebrate victory.

With Portland ahead by a point, 45-44, entering the final minute, Rugabirwa made a free throw, then senior point guard Brady Toher added another.

With 10 seconds to go, after junior Blake McPherson’s game-tying 3-point attempt went in-and-out, senior Owen Combes put home the rebound to again cut the deficit to a single point.

Toher had a chance to extend the lead when he went to the line with 4.6 seconds left, but he missed the front end of a one-and-one.

But unlike last February, when a late missed foul shot set the stage for Cheverus to stun the Bulldogs on a miracle 3 a the horn, Portland didn’t give up possession, as Donato got the rebound and was fouled.

Donato made both free throws and all Windham could do was watch McPherson attempt a three-quarters-court 3-point prayer at the horn that fell just short and the Bulldogs survived, 49-46.

Portland got a game-high 15 points from Rugabirwa as it improved to 14-5, ended Windham’s season at 5-14 and advanced to take on No. 3 Lewiston (14-5) in the Class AA North semifinals next Thursday at 2 p.m., at the Cross Insurance Arena across town.

“The first round is always tough as the higher seed,” said longtime Bulldogs coach Joe Russo, after his 461st victory with the program and 473rd in his Hall of Fame career. “You have everything to lose and (the other team) has nothing to lose. It’s just survive and move on. The kids hung tough and did just enough to pull it out. It took everything we had.”

Too close for comfort

Portland stumbled out of the gate with a loss at Lewiston, then became as good as anyone in Class AA (see sidebar for links to previous stories), winning 13 games and earning the No. 2 seed in the North, with their five losses coming by a grand total of 24 points (two by a single point and another in overtime).


Windham, meanwhile, had to dig out of an 0-4 hole to start the season, which quickly became 1-7. The Eagles then gave Lewiston, Oxford Hills and Thornton Academy scares and gained confidence over the course of the year.

The Bulldogs twice beat Windham this winter, 50-35 on the road Jan. 5, then 57-43 at home Jan. 18.

The teams split two prior playoff meetings (see sidebar).

Thursday, Portland was expected by most on hand to roll to victory, but the valiant Eagles had other ideas.

Thirty-seven seconds in, junior Jeissey Khamis converted a three-point play (layup, foul, free throw), but Windham quickly answered, as Moody hit a 3, then Combes knocked down a 3-ball for the Eagles’ first lead.

After senior Kennedy Charles set up Wani for a layup, Moody took a pass from Lindsay and sank another 3.

After a Bulldogs’ timeout, Donato scored his first two points at the free throw line, but McPherson drove for a layup to make it 11-7.

Portland then closed the first quarter on a 9-2 run, as Toher set up Rugabirwa for his first 3, which banked in, Rugabirwa made another 3 from the corner, then after Moody tied the score with two free throws, Wani set up Rugabirwa for his third 3 of the frame to give the Bulldogs a 16-13 advantage after eight minutes.

The scoring pace slowed slightly in the second period and there would be no separation.

After Charles made two free throws to start the frame to cap an 11-2 run, Lindsay again found Moody in the corner for a 3, then McPherson knocked down a 3-pointer to put Windham back in front, 19-18.

Portland responded, as Khamis set up Rugabirwa for a layup, then with 1:35 to go before halftime, Toher made a nice fake, then knocked down a 3.

The Eagles didn’t buckle, as Lindsay drove for a layup, then with 31 seconds to go, two Lindsay free throws sent the contest to halftime deadlocked at 23-23.

Moody had 11 points for Windham, which was matched by 11 from Rugabirwa.

The Bulldogs looked to take control of the game when the third period began, as first Rugabirwa (from Toher), then Wani (set up by Khamis) sank 3-pointers.

But again, the Eagles roared back, as freshman Tyrie James, seconds after entering the game, made a 3, Dickson scored his first points on a layup after a steal, then Combes fed James for another 3 and just like that, Windham was in front again.

With 2:21 left in the third quarter, McPherson hit two free throws to cap a 10-0 run.

Portland responded, as Donato scored on a putback, then with 22 seconds to go, Wani set up Donato for a 3-point shot which banked home, but at the horn, Dickson drove, banked home a shot, was fouled, then sank the and-one free throw to put the Eagles in front, 36-34, heading for the final stanza.

A stanza which would produce high drama right until the final horn.


Twenty-one seconds in, Toher set up Wani for a layup to tie it.

After a Windham miss, Wani got the rebound, then Lindsay stole the ball back and laid it in to give the Eagles what proved to be their final lead.

With 5:51 to go. Toher set up Wani for another layup and with 4:44 on the clock, Wani got the ball to Girumugisha in the corner and his 3-point bid was true, putting Portland in front for good, 41-38.

“Kevin and Pep can score,” said Russo. “Thank God that they made some nice shots. (Windham) made us shoot from the outside and that’s why we put them in. They did a nice job on offense. They made some nice penetration moves and kick-outs.”

Lindsay answered by banking home a shot over the outstretched arms of Wani with 4:13 left, but 24 seconds later, Girumugisha drove for a layup.

With 3:33 to play, Combes made two free throws to cut the deficit to one, but 17 seconds later, Toher again found Wani for a layup.

“At halftime, we decided to go fullcourt man with a smaller team,” said Russo. “Jeissey didn’t do anything wrong, but they isolated him. We put Remi down low and had him do the screening and get open.”

With 2:54 left, Combes drove for a layup and the pressure was back on the Bulldogs.

After Rugabirwa missed a 3, Donato grabbed the offensive rebound and Portland was able to milk the clock under a minute.

Then, with 47.1 seconds on the clock, Rugabirwa was fouled and went to the line for a one-and-one. He hit the first free throw, but missed the second and McPherson grabbed the rebound, giving the Eagles an opportunity to tie or take the lead.

But with 32 seconds left, after receiving a pass in the corner, McPherson was called for traveling.

Toher was then fouled with 28.8 seconds to play and he made the first free throw.


“I think back to all the practices where we shoot free throws and we have pressure on us,” Toher said. “We’re used to having all eyes on us in practice.”

Toher then missed the second attempt.

Toher somehow came down with his own rebound, but in an attempt to run down the clock, Toher stepped on the midcourt stripe and that turnover gave Windham another chance.

The Eagles would get a great look, as again McPherson got the ball in the corner and he got a look at a 3 that nearly went down, but instead, it bounced in-and-out.

“We got shot we wanted from Blake,” said Windham coach Chad Pulkkinen. “He shoots a high percentage from 3. A couple inches different and we could have gone to overtime.”

Combes managed to keep hope alive by snaring the rebound and putting it home with 10.7 seconds remaining to make the score 47-46.

With the game hanging in the balance, Toher was fouled with 4.6 seconds to play. Toher’s front end of a one-and-one was long, but Donato skied and came up with the biggest rebound of his career and was fouled with 2.9 seconds showing.

“I was very happy to see (Pitia) get that rebound,” Toher said. “That was a great rebound by Pitia right there.”

Donato calmly sank his first attempt, then he swished his second as well to push the lead to three.

“I’m just thinking, ‘We’ve got to go to the Civic Center,’ so I was confident,” Donato said. “I knew I had to make them. It helped to make the first one.”

Windham would have one final chance, as the ball came to McPherson and at the horn, McPherson launched a prayer from well beyond midcourt.

The shot’s trajectory was promising and everyone held their breath, but this time, there would be no agony for Portland as the shot fell just short and glanced off the front of the rim.

At 8:27 p.m., the Bulldogs were finally able to celebrate an exhausting 49-46 victory.

“It gave me a flashback to last year, but it was a relief,” Toher said. “We’re kind of used to these games at this point. A lot of our games are close because we play with such high intensity. It excites me because we’d obviously love a blowout win with everything going our way, but that doesn’t always happen in life. For us to fight through it was awesome. Many of our older guys got together and told ourselves that this was it. That’s what we said going into the fourth quarter. Beating a team a third team is the hardest thing to do. They had a good game plan coming, but we defended well.”

“It feels really good,” Donato said. “Last year, we should have gone farther in the playoffs, so it feels good to get to the Civic Center. I knew it would be a tough game, but I didn’t know they’d come out with that much energy. Second half, we just tried to get the ball inside and get good looks.”

“When it left (McPherson’s) hand, I thought it might be nothing but net,” Russo added. “We’ve had some bad luck with endings, but this time it went our way. Better to be lucky than good. It’s fun when you win. We got challenged as much as any team I’ve had has been challenged and we hung in there.

“They took us to the wire and we needed gutsy foul shooting and we didn’t turn the ball over. Usually, we cough it up, but we passed it around and kept it. Twice we got a five- or six-point lead and I thought we’d get separation if we got a stop, but they would score.”

Portland was led by Rugabirwa, who had 15 points. Wani added 11 points, six rebounds and four assists. Donato tallied nine points and had five huge rebounds. Girumugisha had five points, while Toher finished with four (to go with six assists).

“Brady played one heck of a floor game tonight and made some clutch shots,” Russo said. “He had very few turnovers against a tough team.”

Khamis had three and Charles two.

The Bulldogs had a 23-21 rebound advantage, made 9-of-12 free throws and overcame 15 turnovers (with just two coming in the fourth quarter).

“Coach Russo has been pushing confidence in close games,” Toher said. “With the kind of defense we play, every game is low scoring or close, so he’s emphasized no turnovers late in the game.”

Much to build on

For Windham, Moody led the way with 11 points. Combes bowed out with nine points. Lindsay had eight points, four assists, three rebounds and three assists. McPherson added seven points, four rebounds and two blocked shots. James had six points off the bench and Dickson finished with five points and eight rebounds.


The Eagles made all nine of their foul shots and only turned the ball over 11 times.

But they fell short by the slimmest of margins.

“We’re a young team and we’ve had ups-and-downs, but we believed in each other and we brought a fight to them,” Pulkkinen said. “We knew they were physical and they do a great job defensively trying to turn you over, but I think we did a good job possessing the ball and we rebounded pretty well until the end. It was just a battle. We have good basketball players. Hats off to the guys for never quitting.

“We played our best basketball tonight. Our goal since starting practice in November was to play our best basketball in February and we did that. We just competed. We continually got better every single practice, every single game.”

Following the game, Russo paid tribute to the Eagles’ effort.

“Kudos to Windham,” Russo said. “I will say that in all my years of coaching, that team was as prepared as any I’ve ever seen. They knew where our weaknesses were. They eliminated a lot of our strengths. That’s absolutely the best game plan anyone ever threw at me.”

Windham says goodbye to Combes and Chase Wescott, but everyone else returns and you can rest assured they’ll be a vastly improved squad next winter.

“Our message is to remember this feeling and getting better for next year starts tomorrow,” said Pulkkinen. “It’s been one of my more enjoyable seasons just because of the character these guys possess.

“We get 13 guys back, so we hope you haven’t heard the last of Windham.”

Third time a charm?

Portland lost at Lewiston (56-47) to start the season, then fell at home to the Blue Devils (39-36). The Bulldogs felt they could and should have won both games, but failed to do so due in large part to self-inflicted wounds.

The teams have played four times in the tournament since 1968. Portland holds a 3-1 edge with an 83-37 victory in the 2018 quarterfinals the most recent.

“We have a tougher opponent coming up and we need to be a lot better,” Toher said. “We have to move the ball faster than we have and look to shoot more. We’re trying to translate what we do in practice into games. We plan on being (at the Civic Center) as long as possible. It’s going to be exciting.”

“We just need to score more and play better defense,” Donato said. “If we do that, I think we’ll be fine.”

“Lewiston beat us twice and both games could have gone either way,” Russo added. “Hopefully, we’ll be prepared for their press this time. We’re similar teams and we both predicate ourselves on defense. It’ll come down to who takes care of the ball. I think the kids will be more relaxed this time. We’ll be ready.”

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