Joe Russo is convinced his Portland High boys basketball team will play Oxford Hills “three times this season.”

If Tuesday’s game at the Portland Expo – the first meeting between the two Class AA North contenders – is an accurate indicator, then those games will be nail-biters.

Oxford Hills, trailing for most of the game, rallied with an 18-8 fourth quarter and then hung on thanks to its defensive pressure for a 48-47 win. The Vikings improved to 7-0. Portland, which had won five straight, slipped to 5-2.

“We let that one slip away but we gave it a great effort,” Russo said, adding later. “They’re the measuring stick and they have the upper hand but they can be beat and I think we showed that tonight.”

The teams meet once more in the regular season, and Russo sees a playoff meeting as almost inevitable.

Portland led 39-30 after three quarters, thanks in large part to a strong offensive first half when it made six of nine 3-point attempts and took a 32-22 lead.


But Oxford Hills, which won AA North a year ago, quickly cut into that lead. Teigan Pelletier, who had been held in check, hit a 3-pointer early in the fourth quarter and Tanner Bickford stole the ball in the ensuing Portland possession to set up Cole Pulkkinen for a 3-point play at he basket.

“We’ve always been a second-half team,” Bickford said. “We just come out and run the other team and get them tired and we just don’t get tired.”

A Holden Shaw bucket cut the lead to 39-38 just 43 seconds into the quarter. Remijo Wani knocked down a transition 3-pointer to stem Oxford’s momentum and from that point the pace slowed.

“I knew at some point we would make a run. I was hoping it would be before the fourth quarter,” said Oxford Hills Coach Scott Graffam.

Eli Soehren made a 3-pointer to push Oxford Hills ahead 45-44 with 3:13 to play. It was the Vikings’ first lead since 9-7 in the first quarter.

Bickford followed with a 3-pointer of his own with 2:25 to play for a 48-45 lead. That turned out to be Oxford Hills’ final points but Portland could only muster a Wani layup off a steal with 19 seconds to play the rest of the way. Pelletier missed the front end of consecutive one-and-ones with 10 and six seconds, respectively, left. Soehren got a key offensive rebound after the first and Portland was unable to get off a shot after the second free throw miss.


Portland was hurt by several turnovers in the second half, both against full-court pressure and in the half court.

“We played really well but one aspect got us. It was the turnovers down the stretch,” Russo said.

Portland took early command with an impressive 13-0 run that turned Oxford Hills’ 9-7 lead into a 20-9 edge. Kevin Rugabirwa, coming off a last-second 3-pointer to get the win at Edward Little, started the run with two 3-pointers from the left baseline. Brady Toher was another catalyst with two first-half 3-pointers. Rugabirwa and Toher combined for 18 first-half points. Each finished with 10 points for the game.

Wani scored nine points in his second game back from a football knee injury and Pitia Donato added seven and played well in the post against the significantly larger Vikings.

Pulkkinen led Oxford Hills with 14 points, nine in the first half to help keep his team within range. Pelletier scored 12.

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