Yeshiva University’s Macs men’s basketball team is having a banner season. Last Thursday, Yeshiva earned a convincing victory over Worcester Polytechnic Institute moments before the onset of Shabbos in the opening round of the NCAA tournament, 102-78, then continued its momentum shortly after Shabbos by defeating Penn State Harrisburg in the second round, 102-83. Both meets were hosted by Johns Hopkins in what was believed to be the first US sports event held without spectators because of the rise in coronavirus within the Baltimore region. This was a decision by the school alone. NCAA president Mark Emmert has since announced that all championship events for the season will go on in empty gyms with only essential staff and limited family attendance. The National College Players Association had succeeded in urging the NCAA to host March Madness games without fans in attendance.

Players on each bench cheered and chanted “De-fense!” to make up for the lack of fans. The squeaking sound of sneakers and bouncing of the ball reverberated off the walls of the 1,100-seat Goldfarb Gymnasium that was otherwise so quiet that the in-game chatter could be heard several rows back. Often the crowd masks much of the ballgame’s ongoing movements, but the on-court raw emotions were easily revealed. As students walked by the athletics facility, there were police officers outside and signs on doors reading, “No spectators.” “It’s not as if people were fighting security for their right to enter,” noted one officer standing guard. Music blared over the speakers inside, and some pre-planned fan announcements, including one promoting social media sharing – “Tell the world you’re here” – went on with no fans to hear them. Only players, coaches, referees, employees, and media members were present, so the official attendance was zero. “It was definitely different, but our guys on the bench really made up for it,” Yeshiva coach Elliott Steinmetz said after the 102-78 win. “The energy on the bench was absolutely awesome, and I think it really carried the guys on the court in a big way.”

A 2 p.m. tip-off was set for Friday, March 13, at host Randolph-Macon College in Ashland, Virginia, in what is billed as the Sweet 16 round of the NCAA Division III tournament. This was the first time a YU school program reached this far into the tournament.

The winner of the NCAA tournament third-round game between 13th place Yeshiva and third place Randolph-Macon will advance to the Elite Eight and take on the winner of the No. 9 Wittenberg University and No. 5 University of Mount Union matchup, next weekend.

The Maccabees, who have won 29 consecutive wins and lead all of NCAA III with a 29-1 record, and the Yellow Jackets, who are 28-2, both earned automatic bids into the NCAA tournament by winning their respective conference championships. Yeshiva earned the Skyline title, while Randolph-Macon claimed the Old Dominion Athletic Conference crown.

Sophomore guard Ryan Turell led the Maccabees through the first two games of the NCAA postseason. He is averaging 35.5 points per game through the first two rounds, shooting 77.4% from the field, including 83.3% from beyond the arc.

Senior forward Gabriel Leifer generated his fourth triple-double of the season, the most in NCAA Division III, in the Macs’ second-round victory over the Nittany Lions, scoring ten points, grabbing a game-best 20 rebounds, and distributing ten assists.

Senior guard Simcha Halpert scored 21 points against Penn State Harrisburg and is now No. 2 on YU’s All-Time Scoring List with 1,845 career points. He is just 26 points away from the program record held by Yossy Gev ’02 who generated 1,871 points in his illustrious career.

The Maccabees has been one of the top offensive teams in the nation, currently at No. 1 in the country in field-goal with 53.1% and ranked second in NCAA Division III in three-point field-goal at 40.6%. The Maccabees have dished out 20.2 assists per game, second best in NCAA Division III.

The NCAA Division I men’s and women’s basketball tournament begins in less than two weeks across the country, with games being played from Spokane to Albany. The men’s semifinals and championship game are scheduled for April 4 and April 6 at Mercedes-Benz Stadium, which seats 75,000. Dr. Brian Hainline, the NCAA’s chief medical officer, said in an interview with the AP on Friday evening that contingency plans are being discussed and include playing games with only essential personal at the site – as was done at Johns Hopkins. “That probably is the ultimate scenario that we’re ready for,” Hainline said. Johns Hopkins University said it was “prudent to hold this tournament without spectators” after Maryland’s recently confirmed COVID-19 cases and CDC guidelines for large gatherings. Maryland announced there were three cases of the virus.

A student at YU had tested positive for the virus and the opening round game was delayed by more than an hour after a Yeshiva rabbi tested positive and the school was forced to provide documentation ensuring it was safe to play. WPI waited at its hotel while that was completed, and three players decided not to take the court because of fears about the virus. “Once we got the okay from Johns Hopkins University and the NCAA that they felt comfortable, we had most of our team and student-athletes and parents comfortable about playing. We didn’t have everybody, though,” WPI coach Chris Bartley said. “We left it up to the individual student and their parents to make that decision and we tried to provide as much information as possible. The difficulty in this situation is there was not much information for us to disseminate to our parents and students.”

When things got under way, the national anthem and starting lineups went on as normal, with players giving each other fist pounds instead of handshakes. The two coaches shook hands before tip-off and shared some disappointment that the game was not played in a normal environment. “Fans are part of the experience,” Bartley said. “It’s too bad that, given the importance of reaching the NCAA Tournament, that not only the Yeshiva team but our student-athletes didn’t get the full experience.” The gym was heavily disinfected Thursday night and then again between games Friday. “We did that specific to make sure that there were no questions that we were doing our due diligence, that everything was clean and ready to go,” Johns Hopkins director of athletic communications Ernie Larossa said. “We’re just doing our due diligence to make sure that everybody has a safe environment to compete in.” Johns Hopkins offered refunds to fans who bought tickets. Larossa said more than 400 tickets had been sold for the two Friday sessions.

This game is the second in Baltimore to be held without fans, albeit under different circumstances. A 2015 Major League Baseball game between the Orioles and Chicago White Sox went on at an empty Camden Yards because of civil unrest in the city after the death of Freddie Gray.

Yeshiva’s team had its hotel reservations in suburban Baltimore canceled over coronavirus fears, forcing the team to book rooms at a different location. A PR firm representing the hotel said in a statement sent to The Associated Press: “The management of the property followed the precautionary measures set by Yeshiva University, that has recently canceled classes, as well as scheduled events” and did not discriminate against the team.

The mighty Maccabees are used to legions of faithful fans who sing in Hebrew, chant out their names from the stands, and often follow them on the road. Players on the bench, instead, chanted “Let’s go, Macs!” while their parents watched back in their hotel rooms. “Our bench players did a concerted effort to really be loud and energetic and try to fill the arena with as much noise as possible,” Simcha Halpert expressed.

The Ivy League canceled its basketball championship tournaments, scheduled for Friday through Sunday, and will award its automatic NCAA Tournament bids to regular-season champions Princeton women and Yale men. In other NCAA-related developments:

Against this backdrop, Chicago State announced that it is canceling basketball games, citing the “health and well-being of the campus community.” The men’s team won’t travel for two regularly scheduled Western Athletic Conference games this week, and its women’s team will not host two games, the school said late Tuesday. They are believed to be the first cancelations by a major sport in the US.

The team’s record run comes as YU was forced to cancel all in-person classes at its two Manhattan campuses, and many of the Yeshiva’s network of alumni, faculty, and supporters live in New York-area Modern Orthodox communities that have been hit by quarantines and cancelations, as well as several positive tests for the coronavirus.

In a dose of spiritual medicine for a community hit hard by the respiratory illness, the Macs remain poised for what is to come in the NCAA Division III Tournament.

By Shabsie Saphirstein