The Yeshiva University men’s basketball team dropped its first game of the season, but since that 72-60 loss to Occidental College in California on Nov. 9, the Maccabees have reeled off 25 consecutive wins.
Led by Woodmere resident and head coach Elliot Steinmetz, who won his 100th career game with Y.U. on Feb. 5, and 6-foot-5 senior forward Gabriel Leifer, of Lawrence, who is averaging nearly 17 points and 13 rebounds a game, the Maccabees, ranked No. 15 in Division III, finished first in the Skyline Conference’s Southern Division with a 16-0 record.
The conference playoffs got under way on Tuesday, with the top-seeded Y.U. defeating No. 8 Merchant Marine Academy 75-57 in a quarterfinal game. The Maccabees advance to the conference semifinals on Thursday versus the No. 5 seeded Farmingdale State Rams in a rematch of last year's championship game.
Steinmetz, head coach for the past six seasons, said that what some people might think is a dream season is the result of planning, effort and execution. “I don’t know if it’s a dream season,” he said. “I think it might be the season we dreamed about when we started this program up a number of years ago, but it’s a result of getting the right guys in who are willing to put in the work.”
Leifer, a graduate of Davis Renov Stahler Yeshiva High School for Boys in Woodmere and the reigning Skyline Player of the Year, is one of those guys. He was named the Metropolitan Basketball Writers Association Player of the Week for three straight weeks in January and February. “We haven’t reached our dream,” Leifer said. “There’s still a lot to accomplish, but so far we couldn’t ask for a better way for the season to be going.”
Last season, the team won a school record 17 consecutive games and 19 overall. This year it has surpassed both marks, and garnered its first-ever national ranking entering the Division III polls at No. 24 and climbing nine spots.
“I think it’s exciting,” Steinmetz said, “I think it shows that guys are — even though we have the same guys coming back, it shows that they’re putting in the work in the off-season to get better. They get the credit. They bought into what we’re trying to sell them in terms of a program and structure, and obviously going out on the court and performing every day.”
Building a team
Leifer; fellow seniors Bar Alluf, a 6-foot-4 guard; Daniel Katz, a 6-4 forward; and Simcha Halpert, a 6-3 guard who’s averaging 17 points per game; and 6-7 sophomore guard Ryan Turell comprise the typical starting lineup. Juniors Eitan Halpert (Simcha’s younger brother), a 5-11 guard; Caleb Milobsky, a 6-6 forward; and 6-1 freshman guard Ofek Reef are usually the first players off the bench.
In an 87-63 win over SUNY Old Westbury on Feb. 18, the team didn’t score a basket until nearly four minutes into the first half, but then, keyed by a defense that forced three shot clock violations in the next eight minutes, the Maccabees went on a 14-0 run that led to a 32-17 halftime lead.
When the team forces a defensive stop, the players “get fired up” and “we keep ourselves in the game, even if we aren’t playing so well,” Leifer said. “We have a thing we call ‘the kill,’ where we try to get three stops in a row,” he added. “We know, with the shooting percentage we have, if we go three stops in a row, chances are we’ll go on a little run. So that’s our goal.”
The Maccabees have hit more than 53 percent of their two-point shots and 40 percent of their three-pointers, while averaging 87 points per game.
The squad’s success begins with recruiting. Steinmetz acknowledged that enticing players to a D-III college, where there are no athletic scholarships, is more difficult than at Division I schools, but the college and its location are pluses. “We’re in New York City and we’re a high academic school,” Steinmetz said. “We’re able to bring in high-character guys who are really smart and understand what we’re trying to build. It’s not always the easiest sell, but if you get the right kids, other kids follow.”
Another advantage for Y.U. is the Jewish community, Steinmetz said. Recruited players are acquainted from camps and tournaments, and those relationships are valued. With a roster of players who come from as far away as Israel and as near as New York and New Jersey, familiarity helps.
“It’s such a great group of guys,” said Turell, who’s from Los Angeles. “Everybody is nice, and everyone just wants each other to do better. So when you’re in an environment like that, everyone just meshes.” He added that the team plays unselfishly, with players giving up shots to pass to teammates with easier shots.
Turell has averaged nearly 24 points and 6.5 rebounds per game this season. He was injured in the regular season finale against St. Joseph’s of Long Island. He did play in the quarterfinal win.
Sammy Mandel, a 6-0 guard, another Lawrence resident and a graduate of the Hebrew Academy of the Five Towns and Rockaway High School, said the team is like a fraternity. “At Yeshiva it’s a brotherhood — everyone loves each other,” said Mandel, who will graduate this year and mentors younger players. “People ask me all the time, how do I wake up in the morning at 6 a.m.? I tell them it’s a blessing just to be with my friends playing the sport I love.” The team practices at 6:30 a.m.
Camaraderie leads to winning
From the early-season trip to California, which Leifer said connected the team, to sharing Shabbat, to watching sports on TV, to playing the video game Fortnite, the bonding has led to winning.
Steinmetz and his staff stress wins over individual statistics, and while he did describe being nationally ranked as a “cool accomplishment,” the team continues to strive to improve.
There is no secret formula, he said, except for the hard work and the team’s “family feel.” “It’s a bunch of guys who are really best friends and probably will be for life,” Steinmetz said, “and they play that way and act that way on and off the court, and I think it lends to a winning atmosphere.”
For 6-7 freshman forward Alon Jakubowitz, attending Y.U. and playing for the Maccabees is a dream come true. “I always wanted to come to Yeshiva University, always pushed for it, and thank God I was able to get here,” said the Woodmere resident and Davis Renov Stahler graduate. “I worked very hard to make it to a … college team with all these guys, a bunch of great players. To be on a team like this means everything.”
The Maccabees aim to capture their second Skyline Conference championship and a second berth in the Division III playoffs.
“It’s nice and all, but the job isn’t finished yet,” Turell said. “It’s cool to be 24-1 and it’s cool to be ranked, but at the end of day, nobody else in our conference cares, and no other team cares about our record. So we just have to keep our heads straight and keep moving forward.”
Story reflects conference playoff game result update.