North Carolina's Austin O'Connor won the Tar Heels' first individual NCAA Wrestling Championship since 1995, defeating Ohio State's Sammy Sasso in a controversial 3-2 decision Saturday night in St. Louis.
It all came down to a takedown in the match's waning seconds that officials on the mat didn't call.
Had Sasso been awarded the takedown, he would have become the 16th man in Ohio State history to win an individual title. Instead, he'll come back to Columbus as one of the team's three newest All-Americans, joining Ethan Smith and Tate Orndorff as top-eight finishers at this year's tournament.
Sasso entered the tournament as the No. 1 seed; O'Connor was the No. 2 seed.
After a scoreless first period, Sasso showed his tremendous skills on top, riding O'Connor for more than a minute before the Tar Heel was able to escape. That single point was the only tally on the board for either man going into the final period of the match.
Sasso escaped within seconds to open the final frame, evening the score and maintaining his riding time advantage in the process. With about a minute to go, O'Connor scored the first takedown of the match with a merkle, taking the lead and erasing Sasso's riding time point in the process.
But Sasso again escaped quickly and fired off his own shot, appearing to score the go-ahead takedown well before time expired — but neither official signaled the takedown.
Ohio State's coaches immediately threw their challenge brick, sending the result of the bout to the replay booth. ESPN's commentary crew felt it was a clear takedown, and would have given Sasso the 4-3 victory and the championship trophy.
Instead, the call on the mat of no takedown was confirmed.
Suffice it to say, Ohio State wrestling alumni were unanimous in their condemnation of the officiating.
Never like making excuses for other people but holy crap— Mountain Man (@moore_of_kollin) March 20, 2021
Wow Sasso got hosed. Had dude on his hip with both legs in control. Thats a takedown.— Johnni DiJulius (@johnnidijulius) March 20, 2021
Former team captain and four-time All American Kollin Moore also noted the similarities between Sasso's situation and what happened to Joey McKenna at the 2019 NCAA tournament, when Cornell's Yianni Diakomihalis won the 141-pound title after a disputed takedown cost McKenna the title.
Different year same refs I guess— Mountain Man (@moore_of_kollin) March 20, 2021
For his part, Diakomihalis thought Sasso had scored the go-ahead points, too:
Idk man I thought that was 2— Yianni Diakomihalis (@yiannidiako_LGR) March 20, 2021
Regardless of Twitter sentiment, O'Connor is the victor. Sasso finishes his sophomore season with an overall record of 16-1 with a Big Ten championship and All-American honors to his credit. He'll continue to be one of the most exciting wrestlers in the sport and the face of Ohio State's program for multiple years to come.