Hialeah Gardens’ boys’ basketball players didn’t change their jersey numbers Tuesday night.
But before the game, the Gladiators all wore T-shirts with the No. 33, making sure everyone knew who they were playing for.
A day after learning injured senior center Alvaro Simoza would not be able to play again this season, Hialeah Gardens found a way to persevere again, edging host Miami High 55-53 in a Region 4-8A semifinal.
The Gladiators (23-5), the defending Class 8A state champions, will attempt to clinch another trip to the state final four Saturday when they play at South Miami at 7 p.m. in the regional final.
“We lost a big part of our team, so it was only right that we show our respect to him,” Gonzalez said. “A lot of people doubt us because we don’t have the firepower of last year, but we’re in the regional finals again, and we’re not stopping here.”
Miami High (15-9), which was eliminated by Gardens for the second season in a row, nearly came back to win thanks to guard Allen Baez, who scored nine points in the final 36.7 seconds. After falling behind by seven points with less than a minute left, Baez twice scored and drew a foul. He also made three of four free throws.
Hialeah Gardens’ Adrian Gonzalez, Luis Huertas and Henry Leonardo combined to make four of six free throws down the stretch to keep the Gladiators in front.
Leonardo finished with 18 points, nine rebounds and three blocks. Gonzalez had 17 points and eight rebounds. Huertas finished with 11 points, four steals and four assists.
Baez, who finished with 23 points, had one last chance, firing a half-court shot at the buzzer that fell short.
“[Baez] is one of the toughest players I’ve ever coached,” Miami High coach Marcus Carreno said. “He made a few turnovers early, but he did everything in his power to try to help us win this game. We don’t win five games this year without him. He’s the engine of the team.”
Simoza, an integral part of the Gladiators’ run to their first state championship last season, injured his knee Feb. 8 in the team’s district championship win against Carol City and missed the team’s regional quarterfinal win against Miami Springs this past Thursday. On Monday, Gardens got the official word following an MRI that Simoza had a torn ACL.
Hialeah Gardens coach Marcos Molina had the T-shirts made for all of his players with Simoza’s number on the front and the word “family” on the back.
“Since Alvaro went down, we talked about preparing for each game individually and not worrying about anything else,” Molina said.
Last season, Hialeah Gardens persevered in spite of losing then-senior guard Gian Clavell to a season-ending injury just before the regional playoffs. Several players, including backup center Abraham Kurnick, who has started each of the past two games at center, played key roles Tuesday.
“I’ve learned a lot from Alvaro, and I hope I can grow to be as good a player as he is,” Kurnick said. “I just want to help fill that spot we need on this team and keep working hard.”
HG (23-5): Gonzalez 17, Leonardo 18, Huertas 12, Sanchez 4, Kurnick 4. MHS (15-9): Concepcion 3, James 6, Coqmard 3, Baez 23, Gualtieri 6, Mompremier 10. Half: HG 28-21. Three-pointers: Concepcion, James 2, Gualtieri 2, Huertas 2. Rebounds: Leonardo 9. Assists: Huertas 4. Steals: Huertas 4.