The Big Ten dual season belonged to Penn State — so most fans thought the same would hold true for the Big Ten Tournament.
Ohio State disagreed.
The Buckeyes held off a late rally from Penn State on Sunday to win the team title, 139.5 to 130, for their second tournament championship in three years. Penn State suffered a dismal semifinals round, where it won just three of seven bouts and trailed OSU by 16.5 points to open the championship day at Indiana University’s Simon Skjodt Assembly Hall.
Nittany Lions coach Cael Sanderson was far from pleased on Saturday, as he declined to talk with other reporters after an initial interview session. But he was satisfied with how the team responded Sunday — even if it couldn’t successfully defend the 2016 championship.
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“You never count yourself out,” he said. “We had an uphill battle. The guys responded, gave us a chance to get back in and get a chance to win. I’m proud. Ohio State, they kicked butt. They deserve to win and they are the Big Ten champs. We got to get ready for nationals.”
Sanderson had two big reasons for optimism moving forward, as both Zain Retherford and Jason Nolf captured Big Ten titles in their respective weight classes.
“Zain and Nolf both wrestled great,” Sanderson said. “They were just relentless in their attacks. I’m very proud of them.”
Vincenzo Joseph (165 pound), Bo Nickal (184), Matt McCutcheon (197) and Nick Nevills (285) all finished third in their respective weight classes. It was a record for the Nittany Lions with seven wrestlers finishing in the top three of their weight class at the Big Ten Tournament.
But it wasn’t enough for a tournament victory.
Nolf was named the conference’s Wrestler of the Year on Sunday after a steady 8-2 victory over Iowa’s Michael Kemerer in the 157-pound final. But his face wasn’t painted with any smiles or joy; he felt some bonus points might’ve better set Penn State up for a comeback.
“I’m a little disappointed and a little upset with myself because I left some points out there,” Nolf said. “I didn’t have very good clock management. I didn’t realize how much time was left. I thought I had a little bit more time to get some more points and get some bonus points.”
Retherford, who was named the Big Ten Tournament’s Most Outstanding wrestler, was in better spirits Sunday. He dominated Ohio State’s Micah Jordan to win the 149-pound crown with a 16-1 technical fall.
Leading 5-0 to open the third period, Retherford went on a scoring spree. He rattled off seven unanswered points thanks to an escape, takedown and four near-fall points. He added another takedown, a stall point and a riding point.
“He took me down twice in the dual meet previously this year,” the repeat champion said. “I knew he was going to come out firing right away. I kind of wanted to start off that tempo and just keep builiding on it as the match went on.”
True freshman Mark Hall also made the finals for the Nittany Lions. He took on Ohio State’s Bo Jordan in the 174-pound final.
Hall scored the first points of the match with a takedown with 1:42 left on the clock. Three seconds into the second period, Jordan escaped to tie the match 2-2. Hall grabbed another take down at the buzzer of the second period but Jordan reversed to keep it even.
The pair went to sudden victory and Jordan collected a takedown for the 6-4 win.
“Mark showed that he can win. In two weeks, he could be the national champion,” Sanderson said. “He’s got as good a chance as anybody. These matches he is just going to grow from every experience.”
The big question now is just how these Nittany Lions can rebound at nationals after the Buckeyes showed them up at the Big Ten Tournament. This wasn’t the outcome Sanderson hoped for — but it was still a strong effort after a disappointing Saturday.
“I think the guys wrestled really well today,” Sanderson said. “They competed with honor and that’s what it’s all about, so you can’t complain about that. We got some momentum headed into nationals. Overall, a pretty strong day for us.”