When teams have stepped on the court with Doral Academy this season, most probably thought they would have a good night because the Firebirds didn’t pass the “eye test” – having essentially a five-guard starting lineup with just one player over 6-feet tall.
But at end of 30 of the 32 games Doral Academy played this season, they passed the only test that matters – the win test.
Junior Jonathan Nunez scored a game-high 20 points and grabbed eight rebounds and 6-foot-4 senior Miguel Ayesa added 19 points – including two crucial fourth-quarter three-pointers – to lead Doral Academy to a 56-50 win over visiting Oakland Park Northeast Saturday night in the region 4-7A final in front of a capacity, standing-room-only crowd.
As the final seconds ran off the clock, Doral Academy fans and players rushed the court in celebration as the Firebirds (30-2) had clinched the school’s first-ever trip to the boys’ basketball state final four – where they will face Cape Coral on March 9th in the Class 7A state semifinals at Lakeland’s RP Funding Center.
Doral Academy fourth-year head coach Jorge Fernandez had just one word to describe his feelings after the game as he received congratulatory hugs and high-fives from fans.
“Unbelievable,” Fernandez said.
“No one gave us a chance. We had the toughest road to get to Lakeland…South Florida basketball is really hard. When I took this job four years ago, there was no basketball history and no basketball tradition at this school. I really believed that if we worked hard and we committed that good things would happen. Now we’re headed to Lakeland.”
Hard work and commitment best describes Doral Academy’s offensive approach Saturday night. The Firebirds patiently ran its offense, with all five players moving around the court, setting screens and passing the ball to create scoring opportunities.
After taking a 33-21 lead into halftime, the Firebirds elected to slow the game down and chew up the clock in the second half. Doral Academy scored just six points in the third quarter and still held a 39-31 lead going into the fourth quarter.
Northeast (20-8) turned up its defensive intensity, trying to claw its way back into the game in the final eight minutes, and got as close as four (40-36) midway through the fourth.
But Doral continued to patiently work its offense and was able to stave off the Hurricanes thanks to a pair of Ayesa threes and a Nunez jumper. The Firebirds opened a 52-42 lead with just over a minute left, sealing Northeast’s fate.
Hurricanes senior guard Ricardo Jackson knocked down a couple of three-pointers in the waning seconds – allowing him to finish with a team-high 18 points – but Doral had already cemented its victory.
Ayesa’s 19 came on 7-of-13 shooting from the field (5-of-8 from three-point range); Nunez made 7 of the 12 free throws he shot in the fourth quarter and twin brothers Reggie and Kobbie Perez combined for 17 points, eight rebounds and seven assists.
Doral also got a sizeable – yet somewhat intangible – contribution from junior center Ali Alawie. Alawie came off the bench, didn’t record any points, and fouled out late in the fourth quarter – but he grabbed seven rebounds, had two assists and changed the complexion of the game.
Fernandez said he “felt something” when he elected to go with Alawie.
“I had been down on him because he hadn’t been practicing hard and I haven’t been playing him,” Fernandez said with a chuckle. “But tonight, I told him, ‘you never know when your number is going to get called and he was big for us. He really stepped up and did a lot of good things for us.”
Doral outrebounded Northeast, an athletic team with all five of its starters measuring 6-foot-3 or taller, 28-22 Saturday. Also, the Hurricanes didn’t get its usual output from senior forward Elie Cadet – who finished with just eight points and two rebounds – and junior Jeremiah Sanders, who had 10 points.
Despite their impressive win total this season. with their only losses coming at the hands of state final four qualifiers Miami Christian and SLAM Academy, the Firebirds still haven’t gotten county-wide respect – not even after knocking off Carol City, perennial powerhouse Norland and the Hurricanes during the playoffs.
But that doesn’t bother Fernandez.
“It was a great team effort tonight, I love these guys,” Fernandez said. “We’ve been underdogs…no one gave us a chance. Nobody respected us. But you know what? We’re headed to Lakeland.”
Region 4-7A Final: Doral Academy 56, Oakland Park Northeast 50 – NE (20-8): Jackson 18, Sanders 10, Cadet 8, Jarvis 5, Smith 4, Swaby 3, Gallette 2. DA (30-2): Nunez 20, Ayesa 19, K. Perez 10, R. Perez 7. Halftime: DA 33-21. Three-pointers: Ayesa 5, Jackson 2, Sanders 2, Nunez, Swaby. Fouled Out: Alawie, Smith. Technical Fouls: None. Rebounds: Nunez 8. Assists: K. Perez 4. Steals: K. Perez 2.