Nick Lee’s first NCAA wrestling tournament experience did not get off to a great start.
Wrestling in the first round against an opponent he had beaten by major decision earlier in the season, the Penn State freshman got stuck in a bad position with his head caught in an underhook and was taken to his back for the pin.
That pin, which came right on the heels of Penn State’s 133-pounder Corey Keener getting taken to his back, capped off a poor start for the Nittany Lions and their quest for their seventh team title in eight years.
But six hard-fought matches later in the consolation finals on Saturday afternoon at Quicken Loans Arena, Lee got his hand raised and was declared the fifth-place winner at 141 pounds.
“I think that’s kind of an opportunity to show your strength, rather than getting down on myself about it,” Lee said about having to wrestle seven matches. “I was pretty tired today, but like I said it’s an opportunity to show your strength and to get better.”
After his first loss, Lee, the No. 8 seed, knocked off a total of three seeded wrestlers en route to the fifth-place bout, in which he beat No. 5 Kevin Jack of North Carolina State in sudden victory overtime to finish the tournament three seeds ahead of where he started.
“This was my first NCAA experience. I would have liked to have done a little better but that’s good for our team and that’s good for me going into next year,” he said. “Every match is another match and I was glad to get some good guys to wrestle. The seeds don’t really mean that much to me because you’re going to wrestle them all anyway.”
Headed into the final day of the tournament on Saturday, Penn State was leading Ohio State in the team race by 11, but with three wrestlers alive in the consolation bracket to Ohio State’s six, it was up to Lee, Shakur Rasheed and Nick Nevills to keep the damage to a minimum to ensure the Nittany Lions still had a chance to win going into the championship round.
Thanks to Lee’s fifth-place finish, Rasheed and Nevills’ seventh-place finishes and a little help from some Buckeye opponents, Penn State finished the afternoon down by six, putting its goal of a team title still in reach.
Rasheed capped off his first NCAA experience the best way he knows how — with bonus points.
No. 5 Rasheed came out fast against No. 6 Willie Miklus of Missouri, securing two takedowns in the first 30 seconds to open an early 4-1 lead. The now All-American didn’t slow down from there, taking Miklus to his back twice for two sets of two-point nearfalls, another takedown and nearly three minutes of riding time for the 11-3 major decision.
That bonus-point win, along with Ohio State’s Kollin Moore’s loss to unseeded Kyle Conel of Kent State in the third-place round at 197 pounds, helped the Nittany Lions gain some ground.
Known for being a guy who scores a lot of bonus points, Rasheed knew what he had to do going into the match with Miklus.
“Yeah, definitely,” he said when asked if he felt it was his job to go out and score bonus points. “I kinda did that at Big Tens and it messed me up, I was like, ‘I gotta bonus point everybody, that’s why I’m the guy, you know.’ And the coaches spoke to me about that, they said just go out there and win for you and everything will take care of itself. … So I’ve kind of just been focusing on winning and not as much on bonus points — but this round I was like screw it, it’s bonus.”
Although the junior came up short of his goal of becoming a national champion, Rasheed was still happy with the way he ended his tournament.
“I’m grateful to have a team like Penn State that even though I lost and my goal of being a national champion isn’t going to be true in 2018, we could still win this thing as a team and that’s pretty cool,” he said. “Even though you’re upset with yourself individually, to still have a team that’s so good you’re like, ‘hey, every match counts,’ so I’m really happy to have been able to get bonus points in that match, it meant a lot to me, and I hope it meant a lot to the team.”
In the last bout of the afternoon for Penn State, No. 3 Nevills took the mat against Maryland’s No. 12 Yousif Hemida with a bandage wrapped around his right shoulder. Nevills got the quick takedown to open the first period, then racked up more than two minutes of riding time before giving up the late escape. Hemida took the lead with a takedown in the third period but Nevills got out and secured a takedown of his own with eight seconds remaining for the 7-5 decision.
He walked off the mat to visit trainer Dan Monthly following his victory.
Even though their 2017-18 seasons are complete, Lee and Rasheed are both looking forward to competing again.
“I’m going to let the body heal, definitely, a couple bumps and bruises I got to take care of but I’m going to get back as soon as I can, make adjustments, get bigger, eat more rotisserie chickens and just be ready to dominate next year,” Rasheed said. “Now I’m just focused on the team title, after that it’s Shakur Rasheed, 2019 NCAA champion.”