Things did not go according to plan on Friday night for the No. 13 North Carolina wrestling team.
A matchup against No. 10 N.C. State was never going to be easy, but when the Wolfpack won five straight bouts to build a 17-3 lead barely halfway through, the Tar Heels simply looked shell-shocked. They could never regain the momentum in front of a crowd packed full of N.C. State fans that were raucous the entire night, and ended up falling in a deflating 20-14 loss.
Head coach Coleman Scott didn’t mince words after the match.
“They came to wrestle and we didn’t,” he said. “They outfought us top to bottom, I would say. They started fast, started strong, won the tossups and won the close ones... They beat us. They beat us up.”
It all started so well for his team. When No. 4 Austin O’Connor defeated the Wolfpack's No. 8 Justin Oliver in the first bout of the night in the 149-pound weight class, the home fans were loud and the team seemed energized. Then came the dismal run of five straight Wolfpack wins, effectively putting the contest out of reach by the halftime intermission.
But despite the lopsided score, one thing stood out about the UNC team: the fight of the seniors. After being honored before the match on senior night at Carmichael Arena, the three veterans that competed never quit in their bouts and were able to give their team something to be proud of.
First up was No. 14 Chip Ness, who took on No. 5 Nick Reenan of N.C. State in the 184-pound weight class. Reenan took a 2-0 lead in the first round on a takedown, but Ness battled back with two escapes to tie the score heading into the final period. Reenan grabbed a late lead with an escape and a takedown within the final minute, and despite a last gasp takedown from Ness, he lost, 6-4. It was the closest bout of the night and one that really seemed to shift momentum in N.C. State’s favor, but Ness fought hard the whole way.
“Chip’s just got to find a way to win that one,” Scott said. “We’ve got to have that. I think if you look at the score, if we win one of those toss ups it’s a tie match.”
He was right. With a decision worth three team points, a victory from Ness would have added three to UNC’s tally and taken three away from N.C. State’s.
The main reason things stayed that close was the performance of the other two seniors. No. 20 redshirt senior Cory Daniel, who was competing against Colin Lawler in the 285-pound weight class, pulled out a commanding 10-4 win that featured a number of emphatic takedowns.
“It was a pretty special night,” Daniel said. “I’ve been waiting for it for, obviously, four or five years, it just sucks that we didn’t get the win.”
Redshirt senior Gary Wayne Harding then turned in the most dominant performance of the match, winning 18-1 on a technical fall to give his team an extra two points. It should be noted that his opponent, Zurich Storm, was a backup that was called on with the match comfortably in hand for N.C. State, but Scott praised Harding for taking care of business.
“Gary looked really good,” he said. “If they throw a backup in there against him, that’s what you’re supposed to do: take offense to it. If they send him out there that’s what’s supposed to happen.”
The encouraging performance of the teams’ veterans obviously doesn’t change the outcome, though, and with just two matches left before the ACC Championships, the Tar Heels need to rebound.
“We’ve got to figure out what we did wrong and correct it tomorrow,” Daniel said. “We have a big one tomorrow. Cornell is coming down and we need to beat them.”
His coach echoed that statement.
“It’s about short-term memory,” Scott said. “Let’s not forget the work that these guys have done this year. If we beat Duke [next Friday] we’re still co-ACC champs. Cory hasn’t done that and I haven’t done that, that’d be the first time since 2002. We’re down on ourselves right now but you should be, you should always be your own biggest critic. But we can get some work done tomorrow and go into Duke and beat the hell out of Duke. That’s the goal.”
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