By: Marvin Azrak
Through their constant winning ways and inspiring play, the Yeshiva University Maccabees men’s basketball team have uplifted many orthodox households across the New York area and Jewish basketball fans worldwide. They have created memories that will last a lifetime in the Jewish Sports hall of fame, and officially cemented themselves in Men’s college basketball lore on December 15th by defeating New Jersey city university 93-86 for their 50th straight victory. Despite being a D3 team, that feat alone has garnered praise from NBA and ESPN social media. Ryan Turell and Gabriel Leifer have been the main showstoppers for the Macs, who haven’t dropped a game since November 9th, 2019, 72-60 against Occidental College. The team also owns a 23 home game winning streak and is 23-0 in Skyline Conference play during this stretch.
While all of this is impressive, basketball fans are wondering whether it will mean anything beyond this season. Well, Ryan Turell believes this is just a stepping stone towards becoming the first orthodox Jewish player in the NBA. However, while many in his corner are optimistic, that will happen, and he would become the first player drafted out of D3; if so, Turell has constantly put religion first, even declining D1 offers to be at Yeshiva University. “I realized that my Jewish lifestyle would be sacrificed to play Division I basketball. It just wasn’t worth it to me,” Turell said. The decision has allowed the All-American to become a global phenomenon amongst Jewish basketball fans who are now striving to have the demeanor and competitive fire that the 6’7 unicorn does when he’s on the court. “He’s 6’7, but moves like he’s 6′ 2′ ‘ said an Illinois Wesleyan reporter, who YU will host on Thursday in supposedly their toughest test in the last two years. The team’s average winning margin throughout this 14-0 start to the 2021-22 season is more than 29 points, and only twice have they won by fewer than 10 points, according to the publication Curbed. In addition to that, 38 of their 50 wins over the winning streak have come by double digits.
As for the other All-American in Leifer, it seems as if this will be his last dance as the Lawrence, NY native is married, in graduate school along with his current studying at YU, and also has a side job with an accounting firm in Pricewater Coopers, who hired him last summer.
After four years of playing basketball at Davis Renov Stahler High School for Boys, in Woodmere, Gabe became, in the words of his DRS coach, Avrum Stein, who coached Gabe and the Wildcats to a 33-0 2016 senior year campaign, “the most dominating player” in the Metropolitan Yeshiva High School Athletic League.
“In high school, I wasn’t thinking about the NCAA. I was thinking about getting better,” Leifer said. “In between 10th and 11th grade, one of my best friends switched to HAFTR” — the Hebrew Academy of the Five Towns and Rockaway High School — “and I had to step up and grow into the player I am today in college.” In 2020, Gabriel Leifer eclipsed the 1,00th point plateau while also setting school records in assists and rebounds with 21 double doubles and 4 triple doubles in the 29-1 campaign that was halted due to COVID-19 with the Macs in the last 16 of March Madness.
Last season, the tournament was canceled again but Yeshivah used the streak as inspiration and managed to squeeze out seven more wins before beginning this season on a 14 game win streak to reach the historic benchmark of 50.
The ability to balance religion and basketball with not all 15 players being orthodox yet respecting one another and showing unity on the playing surface is one of the many reasons why they’ve been able to draw many eye-balls across the basketball world. Yeshivah wasn’t always a powerhouse in their own conference, as before coach Elliot Steinmatz (Father of Diamondbacks prospect Jacob Steinmatz who became the first Orthodox Jew to be drafted this past Summer) took the reins in 2015, the last winning season produced was in 2007. But Steinmetz’s recruiting style is quiet but deadly to the opposition, convincing Jews to start for him rather than be a benchwarmer for a Division I team and waste their college basketball potential.
In order to become a national phenomenon, Yeshivah first put their own conference on notice when they pushed through to the Skyline championship game in 2018. They had entered the depths of a respectable team from 2015-2017 with playoff appearances exploded with a 13-7 conference record(15-10 overall) to earn the #4 seed led by sophomores Simcha Halpert , Daniel Katz, Gabriel Leifer, Bar Aluf, and Tyler Hod. Just so proud of these guys to come from where we did and earn a home playoff game,” Yeshiva University head coach Elliot Steinmetz said at the time. “We are so young, but growing up so fast. It’s really been fun to watch.”
Facing off against Mount St Mary’s in round one, Yeshivah sported their trademark resolve with an 80-67 win while overcoming a 17 point deficit with a 45-28 spurt in the second half after cutting the Knights lead down to 13 just before the break. In the semifinals, Yeshivah knocked off #1 seed Farmingdale State, 77-75 in overtime, to advance to their first final in program history. Three days later, the Macs made history with an 87-81 triumph of a Purchase team that was 12-0 at home that season. Simcha Halpert went for 25 points and earned championship game MVP honors.
The journey wasn’t finished as from there they advanced to the NCAA tournament where the youngsters met their match in #11 ranked York College falling 81-67. Still, there was much to be proud about and it was only a sign of historic things to come.
In the season that followed, Yeshivah welcomed freshman Ryan Turell and coasted (16-4 conference record, 19-7 overall) to another Conference championship game where they fell to Farmingdale State College in a playoff rematch 81-75 despite a combined 47 points from Turell (20 points) and Leifer(27 points).
The Macs haven’t lost a conference game since then and excluding the season opening loss in 2020, have yet to drop a tilt period in a stretch that has included two NCAA tournament wins as well.
But if you ask anyone on the team about the streak, here’s what the response would be:
Ryan: “It’s cool, but the real goal is to be National champions.”
Gabe: “We’re aiming for much more than this.”
Elliot: “I’m just focusing on the next game.”
These Maccabees don’t need to back far in sports history for the last perfect team to fall, as undefeated Gonzaga were routed by Baylor 86-70 in the 2021 Division 1 National championship coming up empty handed despite rendering their previous perfection meannegless. . “We don’t want to go down like Gonzaga did” said a YU player, “We want to finish the job”.
That quest continues Thursday against the #1 defense in the nation sporting jerseys of the Illinois Wesleyan Titans. 50 down 20 more to go and we’re all pulling for you guys to get it done. Go Macs Go!