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Yeshiva University basketball team reaches first Sweet 16

Maccabees down Penn State Harrisburg 102-83 in game played without fans due to coronavirus fears

Yeshiva forward Michael Bixon hugs forward Daniel Katz, back to camera, after the team's 102-83 win over Penn State-Harrisburg in the second round of the NCAA men's Division III college basketball tournament, March 7, 2020, in Baltimore. (AP Photo/Jessie Wardarski)
Yeshiva forward Michael Bixon hugs forward Daniel Katz, back to camera, after the team's 102-83 win over Penn State-Harrisburg in the second round of the NCAA men's Division III college basketball tournament, March 7, 2020, in Baltimore. (AP Photo/Jessie Wardarski)

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 that 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!”

Yeshiva University forward Alon Jacukbowitz left, guard Sammy Mande, foreground, and forward Ryan Bokor cheer for teammates during an NCAA men’s Division III college basketball tournament game against Penn State-Harrisburg in Baltimore, March 7, 2020. (AP Photo/Jessie Wardarski)

During a timeout with less than three minutes to go and the score at 94-72, some danced to “Stronger” by Kanye West that blared from gym’s speakers. At the final buzzer, the Macs hugged on the court 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 Saturday and leading all players with 20 rebounds, while delivering 10 assists. Leifer was voted the most outstanding player of the Skyline Conference tournament, which the Macs 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. They have hit the century mark in scoring in both of their NCAA tournament wins.

Some of the families of the Macs who had traveled from across the US 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.

“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 US 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 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 rival. But now they know. Next up is Randolph-Macon College in the Sweet 16. The Ashland, Virginia school is the No. 3 ranked team in Division III.

“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.’”

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