by Tom Utescher
For Hannah Fox, 2017 is turning out to be a year of basketball championships. The 5’7″ guard, who is Penn Charter’s all-time leading scorer, was a freshman on the Amherst College team that won the NCAA Division III national championship in March.
Last month, her hoops prowess took her to Israel as part of the United States team that won the gold medal at the 20th Maccabiah Games. Avenging its lone loss in preliminary pool play, the U.S. squad defeated Israel, 71-61, in the gold medal game on July 16.
For Fox and her teammates, the trip was about a lot more than basketball. A good deal of time spent visiting sites of historic and religious significance gave the former PC star and her teammates a deeper appreciation of their heritage.
“It had a huge impact on me, and I think it was the same for everyone on my team,” she remarked. “I went to a Jewish day school and I knew a pretty good amount about the history of Israel, but when I was actually there I realized how much I’d still been missing, and I learned so much.”
In grade school, she had participated in a local version of the Maccabiah Games, and when she became a teenager, she played with the Philadelphia delegation at national events in New York and California. She was then ready to step up to the highest level, the quadrennial Games in Israel, where 80 nations would be represented.
The 12-member American team for this year’s event was actually chosen during a two-day try-out in New York in August of 2016. In addition to Fox, the Philadelphia area was represented by three Upper Dublin High School graduates. Allison Chernow recently finished her freshman year at Emory University, where she is a teammate and classmate of Germantown Academy grad Erin Lindahl. Lauren Rothfeld just graduated from Salisbury (Md.) University, and Leah Matusow graduated from Penn State in 2012.
Fox was the youngest member of the U.S. Team in the Open Division of the Games; the Junior Division team for the U.S. included Rachel Millan, who has signed with Chestnut Hill College and will be a freshman this fall.
The head coach for Fox’s team, Sherry Levin from Worcester (Mass.) Academy, had coached the U.S. Junior Team to a gold medal in the 2013 Games, and had also guided the victorious American Open Team at the Pan American tournament in 2011. The assistant coach for this year’s U.S. squad was Fordham University assistant Jenna Cosgrove.
A few days before flying out of New York for Israel, the team members assembled in the Big Apple and got in a few days of practice at the same venue where the team trials had been held almost a year earlier.
Once the team set down in the Holy Land, Fox recalled, “We had practice two hours after we landed. The hotel where we stayed had a lot of amenities; it was sort of like a country club. There was a gym where we could practice.”
The competition in some sports was centered in Tel Aviv, but the basketball tournament took place in Jerusalem. In addition to getting used to their new surroundings, the U.S. players also had to adjust to the international rules for basketball.
An accomplished perimeter shooter, Fox had to adapt to a three-point line that was almost a foot-and-a-half farther from the basket than the NCAA boundary.
“The difference was only a few steps, so it wasn’t a huge deal,” the Charter alum observed. “When you’re shooting a “three,” you’re not always right up to the line anyway.”
Other differences proved more problematic at first.
“A lot of our players were getting called for traveling, because with the international rules when you’re in transition you have to put the ball on the floor before you take a step, whereas in America you can take a step before you dribble. After people got called for traveling a couple times, they adjusted.”
She also explained that when someone was shooting a free throw, other players could walk on and off of the sides of the lane. In addition, time-outs could only be called in dead-ball situations.
On Sunday, July 9, the U.S. Team took the court for the first time, winning a high-scoring contest with the team from Russia, 101-71. The next day brought a sobering loss to Team Israel, 68-62.
“They were a guard-oriented team; they were aggressive and they transitioned the ball very well,” Fox said. “We were ahead most of the game, but they took the lead late and pulled it out. It was eye-opening for us, in a good way. We realized we couldn’t just assume we were going to win.”
On July 12, the U.S. delegation got back on track, romping past Australia, 72-36, as Fox contributed seven points to the cause.
The Americans had a powerful weapon on their side in 6’4″ forward Drew Edelman, a redshirt senior at U.C. Santa Barbara who had begun her college career at USC. The native Californian would emerge as the high scorer of the tournament (24.6 points-per-game) and was named MVP.
“For a post player, she ran the court very well and she was an excellent free throw shooter,” Fox related. “She dominated in the paint and she was a match-up problem for every other team. When we threw the ball in to her, she would either make a lay-up, get fouled, or kick the ball back out to get someone else an open shot.”
Team USA’s daily schedule usually allowed plenty of time for sightseeing, in organized groups at first, and independently later on.
“Before the tournament started, we practiced at 7:00 AM, and then we participated in the Israel Connect program,” explained Fox. “We would see two major things each day with a guide, and then there would be a different event each night at dinner.”
For Fox, the highlight was the day that the athletes visited the shores of the Dead Sea and then hiked up to the historic clifftop fortress at Masada, site of the famous Roman siege.
“After hearing so much about it, it was great to actually float in the Dead Sea and then put on some of the mud [known to have salutary properties for the skin],” said the former Penn Charter standout. “They told you to make sure not to get the water in your eyes, since it’s so salty. Later on, when we went up Masada, you could see for miles in every direction.
“It was my first time in Israel, and I wanted to see as much as I could,” she continued. “The weather was nice and clear, although it was always hot.”
The issue of security never seriously concerned her.
“Even going into it, I wasn’t nervous at all,” she said. “On our bus we always had a soldier and a security guard. They had back-up plans if anything happened. The whole process was well thought-out, and everything went smoothly. In the middle of our trip there was a shooting over near the Western Wall that had nothing to do with the Maccabiah Games, but we weren’t allowed to go over there after that.”
In the basketball competition, the Australia win on July 12 had earned the U.S. another match-up with Russia, this time in the tournament’s semifinal round on July 14. Victory did not come as easily this time; the contest was tied late in the first half, and Fox and company would eventually win by 14 points ((77-63), less than half their margin of victory in the tournament opener.
“They only had eight players,” Fox noted, “so in the first game we pushed the ball and wore them down. The second time, for some reason, we slowed the game down a little more, which actually benefitted their team.”
Fox scored seven points to help move the Americans into the gold medal game. In the July 16 championship bout they would face Israel, which had crushed Australia in the other semifinal, 94-26.
“This time we went with a quicker line-up overall to match up their guards,” noted Fox, who would score five points in the 10-point U.S. victory. “We were just as quick as they were, and they had a difficult time with Drew down low. We were up by two at halftime, and I think it was pretty much in the fourth quarter that we took control. We hit shots and made stops, and really got into the flow.”
Back in the U.S., Fox is wrapping up her season in the Philadelphia NCAA Summer League this week, and then she’ll head up to Amherst to work at a basketball camp. She’ll begin her sophomore year at the Massachusetts college just after Labor Day.
With several guards having graduated from last season’s championship team Fox should see more playing time, and she’s been preparing for that opportunity.
“I’ve been working on moves for getting to the basket,” she revealed. “People know that I’m an outside shooter, so for me to drive to the basket will create more options, whether it’s me going for a lay-up or helping to get my teammates open by drawing in the defenders.”
A little farther in the future, Fox plans to return to Israel to continue to explore her heritage, possibly by participating in the Taglit-Birthright Israel program. Taglit is the Hebrew word for discovery.
“Going over to Israel to play in the Maccabiah Games was an amazing experience,” she said. “I wasn’t there very long before I knew that I would be going back there again.”