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Austin O'Connor national champion once again as UNC wrestler claims 157-pound NCAA title

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Redshirt-senior Austin O'Connor is victorious after defeating Little Rock's Austin Keal on Sunday, Jan. 23, 2022, at Carmicheal Arena. O'Connor beat Keal, 24-9.

The North Carolina wrestling team claimed a trio of All-Americans at the 2023 NCAA Tournament, highlighted by redshirt senior Austin O’Connor securing his second national title. 

What happened?

Redshirt first-year Lachlan McNeil’s journey to All-American status began with an opening-round duel against No. 23 Cole Mattin. The 141-pound bout saw McNeil secure an early takedown en route to topping the Michigan redshirt junior, 6-2. 

Thursday evening, McNeil would advance to the quarterfinals with a one-point upset win over No. 7 Vince Cornella. In UNC’s next contest, a pair of takedowns by No.2 Andrew Alirez helped the wrestler prevail, dropping McNeil to the consolation bracket.

Despite dropping the high-stakes duel, McNeil would bounce back and split his next two contests, capped off by the Toronto native falling in his weight class’ third-place bout. McNeil finished the week in fourth place and became a first-time All-American.

Gavin Kane’s route to becoming an All-American for the first time started off rocky. The 184-pound sophomore dropped his opening duel in an upset defeat to No. 22 Colton Hawks.

However, Kane would work his way through the consolation bracket over the next three days. UNC’s No.11-ranked wrestler would go on to win four consecutive matches to earn himself All-American status and place eighth in the 184-pound class.

O’Connor finished the regular season undefeated and earned an ACC title to help the graduate student secure the top-ranked seed in the 157-pound class. His path to a national title began with a decision victory over No. 32 Vinny Zerban on Thursday. 

Later that same day, O’Connor hit the mat to duel against Missouri’s Jarrett Jacques. North Carolina’s prized wrestler would open up an early two-point advantage before securing his second decision win of the tournament, 4-1. 

In the quarterfinal contest, O’Connor would prevail via major decision over No. 9 Will Lewan behind a pair of first-period takedowns. The 157-pounder’s next contest saw O’Connor locked into his closest match of the week. UNC’s riding time point proved to be the difference over No. 5 Josh Humphreys and O’Connor advanced to the national championship bout.

Saturday night, O’Connor squared off against Penn State first-year Levi Haines. The two were held in a gridlock for the first two periods, with neither earning a point. However, the title game’s final 90 seconds saw O’Connor record two takedowns to help him prevail over the second-ranked wrestler in the nation, 6-2

Redshirt sophomore Max Shaw and graduate Jack Wagner competed in the 197 and 125-pound divisions, respectively. Each won their initial bouts before each dropping their final two contests of the week, finishing the tournament with a combined 2-6 record.

Who stood out?

O’Connor earned his second individual national title after a grueling victory over Haines. The graduate became the first multiple-time champ since TJ Jaworsky claimed three straight titles for UNC from 1993 to 1995. O’Connor also earned his fifth All-American finish, becoming the first Tar Heel in program history to earn the esteemed status five times.

McNeil and Kane also posted impressive tournaments with each claiming All-American finishes. 

When was it decided?

After a scoreless first period, the Lockport, Ill. native never allowed Haines to escape during the second period. In the bouts final minute and a half, O’Connor went full throttle to secure a pair of takedowns and win the individual national championship. 

Why does it matter?

O’Connor cemented himself as one of the best wrestlers to ever step foot in Chapel Hill. A year removed from earning All-American status on a torn ACL, the sixth-year senior claimed his fifth All-American finish this season -- becoming the first Tar Heel to do so.

Moreover, McNeil and Kane’s impressive weeks provide a glimpse of what the future holds for head coach Coleman Scott’s program. With O’Connor exhausting his collegiate eligibility, the two second-year Tar Heels will likely become the new faces of UNC wrestling moving forward.

When do they play next?

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The conclusion of the NCAA Tournament wraps up North Carolina’s season.

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@dthsports | sports@dailytarheel.com