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Austin O'Connor continues perfect sixth season in regular season finale against N.C. State

Graduate student Austin O’Connor faces off against his opponent during a wrestling match on Friday, Jan. 27, 2023, in Carmichael Arena.

When Austin O’Connor decided to come back to UNC for a sixth year, there were several reasons why the four-time All-America wrestler wasn’t ready to hang up his singlet. 

First, there were the three losses last year — the most individual defeats for O’Connor since his sophomore season. O’Connor also fell short in the ACC title bout and earned a disappointing eighth-place finish in the NCAA championship.

When O’Connor was ranked seventh in the 157-pound class over the offseason, he took it personally. On the wall next to the mat he practiced on over the summer stood a list of the six names slotted ahead of him.

Despite North Carolina falling in its regular-season finale to N.C. State 28-6 on Friday night, O’Connor continued his perfect season.

“I definitely wanted to prove a point by coming back,” he said. “I feel like I’ve been kind of the underdog going into almost every season.”

Before O’Connor’s fiery play could take hold on center mat in Carmichael Arena, the Wolfpack came out and asserted their dominance. Sophomore Ryan Jack tailed three takedowns in the opening dual and first-year Jackson Arrington’s last-minute near fall propelled N.C. State to an early six-point lead. 

But as the Wolfpack started to find their groove, UNC’s 2021 NCAA champion entered the fold.

O’Connor matched up against sophomore Ed Scott, last year’s 157-pound ACC champion. In a grueling battle, O’Connor secured the lone takedown in the second period en route to earning North Carolina’s first decision win.

As he rose up victorious from the mat, the sixth-year wrestler looked into the nearby N.C. State section, holding up a Wolfpack hand sign before symbolically slicing it with his left hand.

“Usually I don’t like to celebrate my wins like that, but there’s a lot of emotions going on,” O’Connor said. “Last year I lost to (Scott) in the finals of the ACC championship on a torn ACL and whatever else was torn in my knee. I was excited to get back out there and avenge that loss.”

UNC’s extracurriculars sparked what turned into a night full of post-dual displays. And as the pendulum began to sway in favor of N.C. State, the Wolfpack crowd grew louder. 

For graduate transfer Jack Wagner — a first-year Tar Heel facing off against N.C. State for the first time — the night’s increased stakes were evident.

“It feels like I’ve been here for five years,” he said. “The rivalry means as much to me as it does those guys because these are my brothers.”

Wagner’s decision win in the 125-pound clash snapped North Carolina’s five-bout losing streak.

However, by the time the Northern Iowa transfer earned the Tar Heels’ sixth point, N.C. State already opened up an insurmountable lead. Over half of UNC’s individual losses came by fewer than five points, and according to head coach Coleman Scott, North Carolina is close to flipping the rivalry’s script.

You know we’re there, we just got to take advantage of the situation,” he said. “We just gotta go win.”

Despite North Carolina’s blowout defeat, O’Connor’s play on senior night proved memorable. Wagner said he’s “never been around a dude like Austin O’Connor,” while Scott boasted that the Tar Heel standout “does everything the right way” due to O’Connor’s lasting impact on the entire program.

Boasts come by the handful for the Lockport, Ill., native, but O’Connor would be the first to downplay any type of praise. Rather, he would prefer to talk about March, where he will compete in the NCAA championships. 

For the No. 2-ranked wrestler in the country, he’s only focused on checking off one final box.

“I already have that taste in my mouth of being a national champ,” O’Connor said. “I want to chase down another one and prove to everybody that (the first) one wasn’t a fluke. I’m the best in the country, and I’m gonna end my career as number one in the country.”


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