Neftali Alvarez came to Miami Christian with dreams of winning a state championship.
On Wednesday night at The Lakeland Center he delivered one to the Victors with one flick of his wrist.
Alvarez, a junior guard, spotted up and nailed a three-pointer at the buzzer of the Class 2A state championship to lift Miami Christian to a 51-48 comeback victory over Melbourne Florida Prep.
Alvarez, who has several major Division-I offers including Virginia, Purdue, South Carolina, Georgia Tech and South Florida, emigrated from his native Puerto Rico last year, and amazingly finished with only five points.
“When I started playing basketball at 12 years old in my hometown [in Puerto Rico], I dreamed of playing this game in the U.S. and prayed God would give me a chance like this,” Alvarez said. “This is a dream to share this with my teammates after all the tough days of training we put in. I’m so proud to be able to be the one to have clinched the victory.”
As the shot went through the hoop and the buzzer sounded Alvarez ran hysterically down the court where he fell under a pile of his teammates as Miami Christian (30-2) celebrated its second state championship in three seasons and its fourth overall.
It’s also the second time the Victors have won multiple state titles within that span, having won their first two in 2000 and 2002.
Miami Christian did not lose a game the entire season to a team from Florida.
“We had been winning most of our games by 10 or more, but I told them, ‘Trust me, we are going to have a game that’s 50-50 and you will have to execute,” said first-year Miami Christian coach Juan Cardona, a former pro coach in Puerto Rico who joined the Victors before the season. “From day one, we’ve worked on trusting each other and we trusted Neftali and he hit that big three-pointer.”
With 6.9 seconds, senior center Felipe Haase inbounded a pass to guard Eduardo Camacho, who then drove to the three-point line and worked the ball back to Haase. He then delivered a perfect pass to a wide open Alvarez for the win.
“That last play was for Eduardo to choose where to go with the ball,” Haase said. “He gave it to me and Neftali’s defender collapsed on me and left him open. Coach Cardona told us he once lost a championship in Puerto Rico because someone didn’t make the crucial pass. We always remember that.”
Haase, a South Carolina signee who shot 40 percent from three-point range during the season, hit three on Wednesday night, including a pair in the fourth quarter that sparked an 11-2 run for the Victors that helped them erase a nine-point deficit earlier in the quarter.
Haase battled in the paint with Florida Prep’s frontcourt trio of 7-foot Lahat Thioune, 6-11 Mbacke Diong and 6-8 Ndiaga Diop the entire game and led the Victors with 20 points.
With the Falcons’ big men drawing attention inside, Florida Prep (25-6) worked the ball well to the perimeter to its guards, junior A.J. Johnson and senior Montel Stewart, and they came through with big shots in the first half.
Miami Christian took a one-point lead twice in the third quarter on three-pointers by Rosario. But again the Falcons answered with sharp shooting from Johnson, Stewart and junior guard Dejoun Small that helped them score the final seven points of the third and retake the lead.
Miami Christian tied the score at 48 on a long-range jumper by Josh Rosario with 2:35 left in the fourth.
Florida Prep tried holding the ball to set up a last shot, but Small missed on a drive with 1:14 left. Miami Christian then held the ball looking for a last shot, calling a timeout with 31 seconds left and another with 6.9 left before setting up Alvarez’s championship-winner.
“Neftali is special like every kid we have,” Cardona said. “Tonight, he had a so-so game, but I told them they’re going to rotate on Felipe so be ready. You take your chances with him percentage wise on defense and he stepped up.”
MC (30-2): Diaz 5, Haase 20, Alvarez 5, Camacho 4, Rosario 9, Oquendo 2, Hernandez 6. FP (25-6): Diong 10, Thioune 3, Johnson 10, Stewart 12, Small 13. Half: FP 29-23. Technical: Miami Christian. Three-pointers: Haase 3, Diaz, Alvarez, Rosario 2, Johnson 2, Stewart 2, Small. Rebounds: Diong 9. Assists: Camacho 5. Steals: Alvarez 3. Blocks: Thioune 2.