Three Buckeyes Roll Into the Big Ten Tournament Finals As Eight Earn Automatic Qualifications to the NCAA Championships

By Andy Vance on March 7, 2020 at 10:53 pm
Malik Heinselman pins Minnesota's Patrick McKee at the Big Ten Tournament.

Three Buckeyes will wrestle for Big Ten titles Sunday, and five more will wrestle in placement matches after battling through the consolation brackets.

It was a big first day of the conference tournament for Ohio State, as all but two members of the team earned automatic bids to the NCAA Wrestling Championships.

Tom Ryan knew his team faced an uphill battle trying to earn automatic bids to the NCAA tournament for all 10 wrestlers in the lineup. The Buckeyes have qualified all 10 each of the past two seasons, a feat that is no small achievement.

“We need some bracket busters,” he told reporters Thursday before flying to New Jersey for the Big Ten tourney. “It's a big challenge for us at '25 and '57, those are the biggest challenges we have getting through.”

His man at 125, true sophomore Malik Heinselman, got the job done and then some. After eating a pin in the first match of the day, Heinselman turned around and pinned the No. 3 seed, Minnesota's Patrick McKee, in the first round of consolations.

McKee hadn't wrestled in about a month after suffering a knee injury in early February, but Heinselman proved his win wasn't a fluke when he turned around and shut out the No. 4 seed, Justin Cardani of Illinois, with a 4-0 decision.

Entering the tournament as the 11 seed, Heinselman will wrestle Sunday afternoon in the seventh place match.

Things didn't go nearly so well at 157, as Elijah Cleary went 1-2 on the day and fell short of what he needed to do to earn an automatic bid.

Neither did Jordan Decatur, who was the 14th seed at 133 pounds and faced Iowa buzzsaw Austin DeSanto in the first round of the tournament. He followed that with a 1-0 loss to perhaps the tallest 133-pounder in the history of the sport.

Cleary and Decatur are now longshots to earn at-large bids to the NCAA tournament. Decatur was ranked No. 31 in the most recent Coaches Panel and No. 28 in RPI; Cleary was No. 33 and No. 32, respectively.

Decatur had a better shot at an at-large bid entering the Big Ten tournament, but going 0-2 in Piscataway hurt his cause. Cleary was already on the bubble, but winning one match at the conference tournament might help somewhat.

In any event, there is a very real possibility the season is over for both men. NCAA at-large bids and tournament brackets will be released Wednesday, March 11.

Three to the Finals, Please

Sammy Sasso and Kollin Moore entered the Big Ten tournament as the top seeds in their respective brackets, and Luke Pletcher clocked in at No. 2 in his. All three men took care of business, though Pletcher and Moore did so with slightly less drama than did Sasso.

After a first-round bye, Pletcher won an 11-5 decision and an 11-3 major to breeze into a Sunday rematch with Penn State's Nick Lee for a Big Ten title. Moore won with a pair of majors, 18-5 and 16-5, to set up a meeting with Nebraska's Eric Shutlz.

Sasso, on the other hand, made fans sweat a little. His first match of the day, versus Northwestern's Yahya Thomas, went the distance and then some.

After wrestling to a 2-2 draw in regulation and a scoreless sudden victory period, things got interesting in the first set of tiebreakers. Thomas managed a reversal but Sasso's escape and Thomas' second stall call tied things up again. After another scoreless sudden victory period, Sasso managed to escape in his turn from bottom and held on in the final tiebreaker period to earn the 5-4 victory.

Sasso's bend-don't-break style of unbreachable defense and gutting out extra innings drives fans of other teams nuts, but it's what's propelled him to the top of the class and into his first Big Ten final. He'll face Pat Lugo of Iowa, the man he defeated in similar fashion six weeks ago inside Carver-Hawkeye Arena.

Fighting for Third

Ethan Smith, Kaleb Romero, Rocky Jordan and Gary Traub are all still battling for a shot at third place. Entering the tournament as a five seed (Smith) and a trio of six seeds, the Buckeye upper weights all ran into trouble in the quarterfinals and then went on a tear in the consolation brackets.

Smith fell once again to Nebraska's Isaiah White, though this time he held White to a 5-2 decision. He then won back-to-back decisions of five- and six-point margins.

Romero dropped his only loss of the day to Purdue's Dylan Lydy, the No. 3 seed at 174, and then won a 14-5 major and a 6-2 decision to advance to the consolation semifinals.

Jordan lost his second match of the season to Iowa's Abe Assad, then won a 15-2 major decision and led 11-2 when Wisconsin's Johnny Sebastian was unable to finish the match due to injury.

Gas Tank Gary continued to showcase his previously underrated skills, winning a major decision in his first match and then a 14-5 major in the first match of wrestlebacks. His only loss of the day was his second loss of the season to Iowa's Anthony Cassioppi.

Each man is now one match away from the third-place bout, and will finish no worse than sixth in the tournament. Traub faces Wisconsin's Trent Hillger in the consolation semifinals Sunday at noon; Smith faces Shayne Oster of Northwestern, Romero faces Devin Skatzka of Minnesota, and Jordan faces Taylor Venz of Nebraska.

What's Next

All the men left in the tournament have put themselves in position to at least wrestle to their seed, while Heinselman could finish as high as four spots above his 11th seed. Most importantly, the eight of them have guaranteed themselves a spot in the NCAA tournament in two weeks.

Consolation semifinals and placement matches kick off at noon and will again stream on BTN Plus. The finals matches, featuring Pletcher, Sasso and Moore, will kick off at 3:30 p.m. and air live on Big Ten Network.

Iowa holds a commanding lead in the team standings after day one, while Ohio State sits 0.5 points ahead of Penn State in third place. The Nittany Lions have five men in Sunday's finals compared to Ohio State's three, however, so it will be a tight race for third with Nebraska probably just far enough ahead of the Buckeyes to hold off a charge for second.

Updated brackets after Session Two can be found here

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