At one point in the NCAA Division III men’s basketball tournament lid-lifter between Yeshiva University of New York and Worcester Polytechnic Institute of Massachusetts, a WPI player finished a free throw, headed back downcourt and barked some NC-17 words.
A ref heard it from all the way yonder, and why not, given the scrimmage-style desolation of 1,100-seat Goldfarb Gym, with Johns Hopkins having closed Friday’s game to the public as a precaution against the coronavirus amid a state of emergency declaration issued Thursday by Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan.
After the technical foul was called, any of the mere 30 or so spectators, all present for work reasons in the plastic bleachers, could have heard the discourse between WPI Coach Chris Bartley and the ref.
Audible, as well, were the phony groans shooters make trying to coax the official into calling a foul.
And then, during a timeout with 7:30 remaining and mighty Yeshiva (28-1) ahead by 25 on the way to its 28th straight win, the speakers blared Eminem’s “Lose Yourself,” and as the timeout ended and the players returned, one side of the gym rang with a cluster of Yeshiva players on the bench rapping the old, familiar lyrics.
Even among esprits de corps, the Maccabees have quite an esprit. The foremost sounds during their 102-78 win came from their bench imploring defense and providing loud shot-clock updates, of which senior Simcha Halpert said, “I think we made a concerted effort, our bench mob, as we call it.”
Their path to their program’s highest pinnacle featured some hard hills of distraction they handled with aplomb.
Their Orthodox Jewish school, located along the Harlem River in the part of Manhattan that narrows to a sliver, closed Wednesday after a student tested positive for the coronavirus. The Baltimore-area hotel they reserved up and canceled them, forcing them elsewhere, and Coach Elliot Steinmetz used the word “discrimination” to the Associated Press. As if that weren’t a tricky enough way to seek a program’s first NCAA tournament win in its second appearance, Friday brought a sort of tip-off tango.
The game’s start time went from 1 p.m. to 2 to 2:20 as WPI awaited clearance from its top administrators monitoring the outbreak. Yeshiva coaches and others started to fret about sundown at 6:04 p.m., with Shabbat beginning 18 minutes before that at 5:46 and Yeshiva needing to depart the premises preferably by 5, game completed or not. At one point in the run-up, coaches fretted over whether there might be official (or “media”) timeouts, which would extend the game’s duration. There would.
Andrew Baron, WPI’s associate director of public relations, noted how WPI had canceled its international projects for this spring, which in the past have featured students working on infrastructure in Ghana, flood mitigation in Albania and so on. He said: “I think we have confidence that we’re making educated, informed decisions. This has shifted dramatically over the past 36 hours, even over the last 12.”
With tip-off finally, apparently confirmed, players emerged for warmups at about 1:20, then prepared with Dreamville’s “Down Bad,” Meek Mill’s “Monster” and Justin Rarri’s “W2leezy” blaring through the neat, cavernous gym. After 2, the Maccabees emerged in formation, cheered by two hospitable Johns Hopkins Hospital guys along the first row. Player intros featured fist touches rather than handshakes.
The game began at 2:20 on what clearly would be a good day for Yeshiva to avoid, say, octuple overtime. If making Shabbat gnawed at Yeshiva players’ minds, it pretty quickly gnawed less. With Yeshiva’s wasted possessions scarce and its coaching clearly tiptop, the lead began at 11-9, bloated to 51-30 at halftime — at 3:01 p.m.! — and eventually widened to 63-36.
“You know,” Steinmetz said, “the last couple of days have obviously been a little harrowing and a little tough, but I think our guys were just so focused and so ready to play, they were excited to get out on the court. We talked about it a little bit in the locker room. You know, these are our 40 minutes to kind of just do what we came for and have the opportunity to be excited and be energetic and get out and play.”
That they did, and Steinmetz said: “I think it’s a bunch of guys who had a goal when they started the season, followed it through; they come to every practice prepared to go. Whether we’re going contact or no contact in practice, the mentality is the same. The energy level’s the same. And they’re gamers. These guys, they just, they know how to perform. They know how to make big shots. You know, we’ve had our share of very close games, and they somehow find a way to win every time.”
They made a good-grief 34 of 56 shots (60.7 percent) on Friday, including 15 of 28 three-pointers, with Turell shooting 13 for 16 overall and 7 for 9 from behind the arc and finishing with 41 points, and then the paramount stat: a 4 p.m. finish.
Then they set to prepare for a second-round game Saturday against Penn State Harrisburg, which beat Johns Hopkins on Friday night.
The ancient texts, as it happens, don’t seem to allow Shabbat exceptions for March Madness.
“Yeah, it’s definitely different than everybody else because we will not prepare over the next 25 hours at all,” Steinmetz said. “So we’ll go back to the hotel. We pre-prepare and scout on both potential opponents. We’ll go over them briefly, hopefully before the Sabbath starts. We’ll find out at some point, I’m sure, who won. And then we’ll try to spend a good 20 minutes after the Sabbath ends and have a team meeting, go over, scout. We will not have a chance to do film. We will not have a shoot-around. But we’ll be here; hopefully we’re looking for a 9 o’clock start, but hopefully we’ll be here at 9 o’clock ready to play.”
As he finished speaking, the gym already had closed — for a rare level of cleaning for a rare type of quiet Friday night game. At least those doing the cleaning didn’t have to gather and dispose of the used cups beneath the Yeshiva bench. The Maccabees, per custom, had reached beneath the seats and taken care of that.