A Team That Changed the World
The phrase March Madness is a double-edged sword. It's madness when a No. 15 seed can knock off a No. 2, when the legacies of two whole fanbases come down to just a few seconds. It’s inherently fun, of course, but also stressful, cruel and maddening.
For the first time in two years, the YU Maccabees men’s basketball team played a full season. They looked unstoppable at first, winning 14 straight games and extending their winning streak to 50. They were ranked No. 1 in the NCAA Division III. Then came their matchup against Illinois Wesleyan University, which they lost handily, ending their streak. They appeared to be unraveling, losing games to Skyline opponents Farmingdale State College and St. Joseph’s Long Island.
What followed was an impressive resurgence: The Macs squared off against the No. 5 nationally-ranked University of Saint Joseph Connecticut. Down five to start the second half, they clawed their way back to a decisive and resounding victory. The skyline playoffs were a party. Amare Stoudamire, Robert Kraft and Marc Lasry all stopped by to join the fun. Gabe threw an alley-oop to Ryan, tickets ran out in 4.5 seconds and the Max Stern Athletic Center was rolling for three straight games.
Off to Galloway, NJ they went for a hard-fought loss against one of the country’s best teams, Johns Hopkins. Down eight with one minute left, Ryan Turell used all his might to bring the team back within striking distance. A 3-point foul, a long three and two turnovers somehow gave the Macs a shot with 15 seconds left to tie it up. But alas, March is madness; Ryan got a good look but couldn’t line up the ball, and the clock ran down torturously slowly as Macs players realized that their dreams would not come to fruition.
That loss was brutal and will be hard to get over. But as a fan there are so many other things that are hard to get over. Good things. It’s hard to get over the fact that our tiny DIII school attracted national press coverage, from the New York Times to ESPN to a tweet from the NBA. It’s hard to get over the thrill of watching this team of peers work together so beautifully on the court and be so nice off of it. Over and over the Macs pulled off incredible plays. Whether it was fan favorite Alon Jakubowitz dunking, Ryan Turell on an exhilarating fast break or the alley-oop from Gabe to Ryan in the Skyline championship, the Macs could turn a mundane school night into a rave at any moment.
As President Berman said to the New York Times, this team played for a people, and attending games at the Max Stern Athletic Center, it's easy to see what he meant. Old and young fans came out to see their team work magic. This team inspired people. That will last far beyond any accomplishments on the court.
For the Macs core, Ryan Turell, Gabe Leifer and Eitan Halpert, their careers wearing the blue and white are most likely over. All three players helped radically transform the team from one which had never been to a NCAA tournament in its history to one that made three in four seasons.
Gabe Leifer was there for it all. Returning this year as a graduate student, transforming from a shooter to a passer over his five-season career, he saw all the team’s growth and was instrumental in making it happen. Eitan Halpert was very much the team's heart. Passionate, gritty and a sniper from three, Halpert came up with a big shot whenever it seemed the Macs needed one.
Much has been written about Ryan Turell’s skill set, his decision to play for YU as opposed to the Division One schools recruiting him and his NBA potential. But not enough has been said about his leadership as a teammate. Before the games he kept guys loose, and during them, his intensity and enthusiasm never ventured into disrespect. His emotional expressiveness was infectious. He often led chants in the stands or looked at us fans trying to pump up our energy. When Matan Zucker won the Skyline championship’s Most Valuable Player award, Turell led a chant in the gym which had been exclusively reserved for himself all season: M-V-P! M-V-P!
Turell’s NBA draft potential remains to be seen. Many scouts came to view games this season, but it's hard to know whether that will result in one of the coveted 60 picks selected on June 23, 2022 at the NBA draft. Turell certainly had a phenomenal season, leading all of Division III in points per game with 27.1.
Key bench players Ethan Lasko’s and Jordan Armstrong’s NCAA careers are over as well. Next year's team will most likely feature Ofek Reef, Matan Zucker and Adi Markovich in more prominent roles.
Overall, for the team, It's hard to walk away from a season in any sport without winning a championship. Throughout, players work as a unit toward the singular goal of a national championship title. But in a tournament of 64, that is a torturous way to operate. The Macs won the Skyline championship, they dunked and they shot and they transcended. While their season didn’t end how I had hoped, it is impossible to quantify how many people this team inspired. The 2021-2022 Yeshiva University Maccabees were thrilling and enthralling. The architect of the roster, Coach Elliot Steinmetz said it best to YUAthletics: “This team changed the world.”
Photo Caption: The Macs after winning the Skyline Championship, Feb. 27, 2022
Photo Credit: YU Athletics