BALTIMORE, Md. – First came the prayer ceremony at the conclusion of the Sabbath with their families, then, the celebration on the basketball court and the overflowing joy of March Madness victory.
Yeshiva University beat Penn State Harrisburg 102-83 on Saturday to reach the Sweet 16 of the NCAA Division III Tournament for the first time in the history of the Jewish Orthodox institution.
The Maccabees, named after the ancient Jewish rebel warriors, fought against all odds. They won their 29th straight game in a record-breaking season that began amid concerns over a global rise in anti-Semitism and has now been engulfed by the new coronavirus.
The game was played at an empty gym at Johns Hopkins University because of concerns over the virus. The legion of faithful Macs fans who chant out their names from the stands and often follow them on the road was replaced by the squeaking of sneakers and the unwavering support of their bench players, some wearing Jewish skullcaps, who chanted “De-fense! De-fense!”
During a timeout with less than three minutes to go and the score at 94-72, some danced “Stronger” by Kanye West that blared from the gym's speakers. At the final buzzer, the Macs hugged on the court at an empty 1,100-seat Goldfarb Gymnasium and celebrated, pumping their fists and singing in Hebrew: "When the month of Adar begins, joy increases!"
“It means everything,” forward Gabriel Leifer said about the victory and reaching the Sweet 16. He got his fourth triple-double of the season, scoring 10 points and leading all players with 20 rebounds while dishing out 10 assists. Leifer had been voted most outstanding player of the Skyline Conference that the Macs recently won to qualify for the NCAAs.
“From the start of the year, after we lost in the conference final last year, we knew this year was going to be a big year for us,” he said.
Their records this season include the best start in school history, the longest winning streak and their first national ranking.
“It's amazing, unbelievable,” co-captain Daniel Katz said. “I don't know if we ever thought about this. We've come an unbelievable long way as a team, and it's surreal."
Some of the families of the Macs who had traveled from across the U.S. to support them followed the game from a hotel where they had relocated after Yeshiva’s team had its first hotel reservation in suburban Baltimore canceled over coronavirus fears. A student at the university tested positive, leading to the cancellation of classes.
“It’s special because a lot of families drove up Friday. That was after everyone found out that they weren’t allowed to go to the games,” Leifer said. “It shows their support from beginning to the end. Whether they can be there, whether they cannot, they’re always there for us.”
A day earlier, the Macs beat Worcester Polytechnic Institute in what was believed to be the first U.S. sports event held without fans because of the new coronavirus. After the game, the players rushed back to their hotel before sundown on time for the start of the Sabbath.
While they waited for their next game, some wore prayer shawls, shared a traditional dinner and played card and board games with their families. They couldn’t check scouting reports or watch the result of other games to find out who would be their next opponent. But now they know: they have advanced, and this time, they will face nationally ranked No. 3 Randolph-Macon College of Ashland, Virginia in the Sweet 16.
“It's going to be awesome," Leifer said. ”It's an amazing experience, another game, and like we say: `We're just surviving events no matter how hard or how difficult it is.'”