UPDATE #2: In the final rankings, Yeshiva University is named #8 in the nation.

UPDATE #1: Due to Coronavirus, the NCAA Tournament has been cancelled. Coach Steinmetz posted:

What's sad is that there was no real ending to this movie. Just a blank screen. Life is bigger than basketball, always will be. The world finds weird ways to remind us of that. Hoping everyone stays healthy and safe. Thanks to all who supported us this year. #gomacs

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Saturday evening, March 7, 2020 at a hotel in Baltimore. After a 25-hour respite from basketball, the Yeshiva University men’s team says the Havdalah prayers to end Shabbat and heads straight to the game of their life in the NCAA Division III basketball tournament – ending with an impressive 102-83 victory over Penn State Harrisburg that advanced YU to the Sweet 16 bracket.

The YU Maccabees – bearing the nickname of the heroic and pious Jewish warriors – have had an unusual season, to say the least. After losing their opening game of the season, the “Macs” are now riding a 29-game winning streak, amongst the longest in the country.

All this has propelled the Macs to a unique position among Jewish athletes. Yes, there are Shabbat-observant marathon runners, ping pong champions, and even basketball stars. But never has a yarmulke-wearing, Shabbat-observant team been so in the national spotlight.

YU wins the Skyline Athletic Conference championship on March 1, 2020.

Corona and Shabbat

Last weekend’s events began rather inauspiciously. When a YU student tested positive for coronavirus, the university closed its main campus in Manhattan, throwing a wrench into the team's training schedule. Then, when the team bus was only 45 minutes away from arriving in Baltimore, the hotel cancelled their reservation, citing concerns about spread of the virus.

Then, the NCAA announced that all further games would be closed to fans. Dozens of YU fans abandoned their drive from New York to Baltimore when hearing the news; those who'd already arrived cheered via livestream from their hotel rooms. All total, 31,000 computers logged on to the watch the game.

Friday's game against Worcester Polytechnic Institute had additional drama, with the specter of the game not ending before Shabbat – particularly if it went into overtime.

"NCAA officials initially delayed the start of the game one hour," YU Coach Elliot Steinmetz told Aish.com. "When they wanted to delay another half-hour, I told them: 'By 5 p.m., no matter what’s happening on the court, we're getting on the bus.'”

Thankfully, things worked out with more than enough time, and the Macs won, 102-78, carrying the victory celebration into a festive Shabbat at the hotel, where they spent the next 25 hours with no game films, no strategic discussions, and no practice. Just a spiritual recharge to focus on their shared sense of purpose and values.

Only on Saturday night, after three stars lit the sky, did the Macs find out their opponent for the evening: Penn State Harrisburg. 

“We prepared scouting reports on both teams beforehand, and had a game plan ready for either team,” says Steinmetz. “But we had no practice and not even a shoot-around prior to the game. Our pre-game preparation essentially consisted of a 25-minute bus ride from the hotel to the game. No doubt – from a basketball perspective, this was a challenge.”

Steinmetz reflects and continues. “Yet there is a certain overall advantage to the chemistry and camaraderie that our guys have. They have a shared background that goes back millennium. It’s strengthened by spending Shabbat together – and that definitely makes a positive difference on the court.”

This sense of brotherhood manifests in a YU team that selflessly shares the ball, dishing out over 20 assists per game, second best in the nation. The Macs’ disciplined offense takes only good shots; the team is #1 in the nation in overall field-goal percentage, and second in 3-point percentage.

On Saturday night, the Macs hit a remarkable 65% of their two-point shots – often backdoor cuts against the zone, with fluid passes finding one another open underneath for easy lay-ups or morale-lifting dunks. From long range, the Macs’ shot with laser-beam accuracy, sinking a devastating 65% of their three-point attempts.

Tyler Hod plans to attend rabbinic school next year – and is getting married this Sunday.

Representing the Jewish People

Around 30 minutes before each game, the Macs gather in the locker room for some Torah study. Tyler Hod, a 6-foot guard who plans to attend rabbinic school next year (and is getting married this Sunday – mazel tov!), shares a Torah lesson to focus the Macs on the Jewish values they stand for. 

YU players are aware of the bigger-picture: More than just basketball, they’re ambassadors representing the Jewish people and Torah Judaism. “We discuss how to conduct ourselves not only on the court, but also outside of the game,” says Steinmetz of a team that has become known for sportsmanship, clean play, and respectful coaches.

"What is important is not just that the Macs are winning – it is the way they are winning: with selflessness, teamwork and great sportsmanship," YU president Rabbi Ari Berman told Associated Press. "They are an embodiment of our mission to bring our positive Jewish values out into the world."

Especially in this time of increased anti-Semitism – where the Macs have faced anti-Semitic taunts from opponents and spectators, and New York police officers are posted at home games – the Macs hope to use sports to build bridges. “Generally, the best way to fight hate and intolerance is through education,” Steinmetz says, “and the team is definitely educating a lot of people right now.”

The Macs’ success – and their Sandy Koufax-like public adherence to Jewish practice – has captured the imagination of the broader world. Standing beside six gleaming Super Bowl trophies, New England Patriots owner Bob Kraft sent a video message congratulating the team’s success, saying in Hebrew that "Ain davar omed lifney haratzon" – where there’s a will there’s a way. Meanwhile, Milwaukee Bucks owner Marc Lasry has promised the Macs that if they keep winning, he’ll fly the team to Milwaukee to be feted by the Bucks.

The Macs pregame ritual include a team huddle that ends with a rousing “Amen!”

New Coach, New Era

Steinmetz, who has a concurrent career as a successful real estate attorney, became YU basketball coach in 2014 after an international search that attracted hundreds of applicants. Steinmetz himself is a YU graduate and played for the men's basketball team. After coaching the U.S. 18-and-under team to a gold medal at the 2013 Maccabiah Games in Israel, he came to YU with the goal of recruiting the best Jewish players in the country.

Steinmetz attracted enough good athletes to implement a disciplined yet up-tempo offensive game – and the rest is history. Two years ago, the Macs set a team record with 18 wins for the season, earning Steinmetz a national “coach of the year” award. Last year, the Macs improved to 19 wins, and this year the Macs have 29 wins and their first trip to the Sweet 16 in team history.

The recruiting continues to pay off, as evidenced by the geographic diversity of this year's squad that includes players from California, Texas, Florida, Chicago, Baltimore, Denver, and Israel. Some turned down offers at Ivy League and Division I schools to play for YU.

Beyond the court, Steinmetz is responsible for ensuring the academic success of the student-athletes. Under his leadership, the men's basketball team earned the NABC Team Academic Excellence Award. Star forward Gabe Leifer sports a GPA of 3.68, and star guard Ryan Turell has been recognized as “Scholar-Athlete of the Year.”

Coach Elliot Steinmetz is leading YU basketball to new heights.

Talent on the Court

Most of all, the Macs let their basketball skills do the talking. Leifer leads the NCAA Division III with 11.8 defensive rebounds per game and with four "triple-doubles" this season.

In last Saturday's win, Turell, a 6-foot-7 sophomore guard, sank a game-high 30 points. He has won both the Skyline Conference "Player of the Year" award and the conference scoring title. In the first two games of this NCAA postseason, Turell is shooting 77% from the field, including 83% from beyond the arc.

Did Steinmetz ever imagine a 29-game winning streak? "29-in-a-row is a crazy thing," he says. "But it's a credit to the players, who bring consistent focus every single day."

The next chapter in this Cinderella story is on Friday, March 14. The Macs will awaken at a hotel in Virginia, wrap leather straps of tefillin, and pray together. Then, at 2 p.m. EDT, they'll square off against Randolph-Macon College, ranked #3 in the nation (Division III) – a defensive powerhouse that will have a difficult time beating any team that shoots 65%.

The Macs will be out there, center stage, huddling together in a pregame ritual that ends with a rousing "Amen!" And whatever the outcome of the game, the Macs will head back to their hotel, light Shabbat candles, and enjoy songs, inspiring Torah thoughts, and close camaraderie for the next 25 hours. Just another step in their quest for a national championship.