Cardinals overcome injuries, lean on Balzadua to continue playoff journey

McALLEN — The Harlingen Cardinals were put in a familiar spot Friday night during their Class 6A area-round playoff game against McAllen Memorial.

In the second quarter, Michael Arellano went down with an injury and in the fourth quarter Jeremy Vasquez also exited the game with an injury. Neither starter returned.

Earlier in the year, however, the Cards overcame injuries and Friday night was no different. Junior Diego Balzadua took over the offense and scored a team high 18 points and hit a late free throw in the final seconds that helped Harlingen to a 59-55 win.

“Diego came on late for us in our season. His first real opportunity came against San Benito and he stepped up for us then and we had confidence in him,” said Harlingen coach Greg Yates. “He was solid for us tonight. Unfortunately, we have dealt with injuries before, but these kids have experience and they have playing time in our rotation.”

Harlingen will now face Laredo Alexander in the regional quarterfinals at 7 p.m. Tuesday at CC Carroll High School.

“At halftime, I knew I had to step up,” Balzadua said. “We faced some adversity tonight and we were resilient tonight. I have been waiting for this moment since the beginning of the season. Coach trusted me to step in and make plays and I was able to pull through.”

The Cardinals got off to an early 7-2 run in the first quarter and controlled the tempo into the second quarter. It was late in the second period when Arellano went down with an injury. Arellano’s availability for next week’s game is still uncertain. He finished with five points.

In the second half, Harlingen fended off the Mustangs, who chipped away all night. Memorial’s Christopher Flores kept the ’Stangs in the game with his 21 points.

In the final minutes, Harlingen let a late 10-point lead shrink to a 57-55 lead with less than a minute left. But Balzadua hit a crucial free throw that gave Harlingen a two-possession lead and helped seal the win.

“This my first playoff run and it’s a lot of fun with this team,” Balzadua said. “At the free-throw line I needed to stay calm and clear out all the noise and focus on the basket.”

The last time the Cardinals made it this deep in the playoffs was 2014 when they advanced all the way to the Sweet 16.

For senior center Matthew Sesler, getting to the third round is special.

“I have never gone this far in the playoffs,” Sesler said. “My sophomore year we made the playoffs, but lost in the first round so this is great being able to make it further.”