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Nation's only deaf men's basketball team came a hair away from March Madness
Gallaudet Men's Basketball team is the nation's only deaf college basketball and was narrowly eliminated Saturday for a March Madness berth. February 23, 2017. (Image source: WJLA-TV)

Nation's only deaf men's basketball team came a hair away from March Madness

Gallaudet University in Washington, D.C., was upset in this weekend's North Eastern Athletic Conference tournament by Morrisville State, who knocked them out of contention for a spot in the annual brass ring tournament of college basketball: the March Madness tournament. But as a nearly all-deaf team, their greatest accomplishments are not necessarily on the court.

The team set a program record for wins this season but their ultimate upset by Morrisville State, 72-68, in the semifinals of the NEAC brought the season to a close. They came within a three-point shot to tie the game but missed in the final 10 seconds, sending the Galludet Bisons to the locker room to try again next year for a chance to play in the NCAA Division III tournament, better known as March Madness.

But the Bisons' story, and their close scrape with destiny this season, is more than an ordinary sports story. Because nearly the entire Gallaudet men's basketball team is deaf or has extreme hearing loss. Their leading scorer, for example, is 100 percent deaf. Gallaudet is, in fact, one of the premier schools for the deaf in the country.

“I mean, I do talk about it. I think it’s certainly big for our community,” second-year Coach Kevin Kovacs, himself a 1995 Gallaudet graduate who played basketball for the school, told The Washington Post. “I mention sometimes to the team about how special it is to be wearing a Gallaudet basketball uniform. We’re the only deaf university with a basketball team in the world. There’s really no other college or university that has that same kind of unique experience we have here, so we’re very special. I feel like we have a responsibility to do our best and to show deaf people that they can be proud of what we do.”

The Bisons, before losing in the tournament semifinals Saturday, put up numbers any college would be proud to boast, according to The Post:

This regular season was a fine beginning. The 20-5 Bison won at least 18 games for a third straight year — the only 18-win seasons in school history. They earned home-court advantage this weekend by going 18-2 in NEAC games. Senior Joshua McGriff, a repeat first-team all-conference player, ranks third in Division III in blocked shots. Kovacs, who led Gallaudet to a 13-0 league start, was the NEAC’s coach of the year. And despite playing an up-tempo style, the Bison racked up those 20 wins behind their defense, which ranks among the top Division III teams in a host of categories. Because basketball cliches, it turns out, don’t sound all that different in sign language.

The non-verbal team is used to using their hands constantly in their day-to-day lives, and Coach Kovacs notes that stellar defense requires constant use of the hands. "So there’s no reason that our hands shouldn’t be up at all times," he told the Post. The players don't call out plays and directions to each other. Instead, they maintain almost constant eye contact and use facial expressions, body language and the always ready hand signals. "Plays are largely called with one-handed signs; one offensive set is called horns (you can guess what that looks like), and another is named after George Washington," the Post noted.

And while the team couldn't quite break through to this year's tournament, they break through the barrier of being hard of hearing in a loud world every day of there lives, making this year's accomplishment — and any future winning seasons — that much more inspiring.

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