MINNEAPOLIS -- Gophers wrestling fans waited for Gable Steveson as the main-event heavyweight match to conclude the Big Ten championships Sunday, March 11, at Williams Arena.
Once the match started, they kept waiting for the much-hyped true freshman from Apple Valley to show how he ascended to 30-0 and into the nation’s top ranking during the capstone bout against Penn State’s second-seeded Anthony Cassar.
After a frenetic finish, Steveson’s first collegiate defeat came in a shocking 4-3 loss that cost him a conference trophy. Minnesota’s last Big Ten champion remains 133-pounder Chris Dardanes in 2015.
In an uneventful first two periods, Steveson’s escape from the down position put him up 1-0, the only substantive action in a stretch which consisted of mainly hand-fighting, scoping out attacking options, as well as a warning to Cassar for stalling.
Finally, Steveson slammed Cassar to the mat for an emphatic third-period takedown and a 3-1 lead with 80 seconds left. He gave Cassar an escape seconds later. Cassar then fought to secure a pivotal takedown with 22 seconds remaining.
“Honestly, I should have picked up the pace a little more,” said Steveson, who was named Big Ten freshman of the year moments after the match. “I was testing out too many things instead of pulling the trigger, and unfortunately he got the last bite on it.”
With the clock ticking, Steveson tried to spring free of Cassar’s grasp but couldn’t get the crucial escape point to force overtime.
“I told him you’ve got to give yourself more chances to score points,” Minnesota coach Brandon Eggum said. “When he made the one really good, hard attack, he scored the takedown. … I know he could win that match.”
Cassar, a senior who added 35 pounds to move up from 197-pound class last year, improved to 25-1 this season, with his only defeat to Oklahoma State’s Derek White, who is ranked third in the nation. Steveson topped White 8-2 in a November dual.
Cassar’s victory helped Penn State further solidify its Big Ten team title with 157 points. Ohio State was second at 122.5, Iowa third at 107.5 and Minnesota fourth at 101.5. It was the U’s first top-four finish since 2015.
“Overall, really good when you look at where we came in with our seeds and where the guys wrestled to, that was pretty impressive,” Eggum said. “That was some pretty tough spots.”
The Gophers had three third-place finishers — Sean Russell (125 pounds), Ethan Lizak (133) and Devin Skatzka (174).
Third-ranked Russell gave the Gophers a good start to Sunday’s final session. The transfer from Edinboro University beat Indiana’s Elijah Oliver 5-0. Minnesota’s Lizak, who was ranked sixth, backed it up with a 5-2 win over Iowa’s Austin DeSanto, avenging a dual-meet loss to DeSanto in January. Fifth-ranked Skatzka posted a 4-2 defeat of Nebraska’s Mikey Labriola.
At 141, Mitch McKee lost to No. 2 Nick Lee of Penn State separated in the third period for an 11-4 major decision.
At 149, U’s Tommy Thorn was awarded fifth after a forfeit by Penn State’s Brady Berge. At 157, the Gophers’ Steve Bleise went down 10-1 in a major decision in the fifth-place match to Ryan Deakin of Northwestern.
But the focus was on Steveson, who now has 11 days to prepare for the NCAA championships on March 21-23 in Pittsburgh.
“It just makes you more hungry,” Steveson said. “I learned that you can’t give up shots with 30 seconds left in a match. That was it for him. That is what he was looking for, and he got it.
“He knows I’m coming again. I know he’s coming again. We are going to see each other.”
The Big Ten co-wrestlers of the year were Penn State’s Bo Nickel and Jason Nolf, with the co-wrestlers of the tournament being Nolf and Iowa’s Alex Marinelli. … Coach of the year was the Nittany Lions’ Cael Sanderson. This is his sixth conference title in 10 years at Penn State. … Sunday’s attendance at the Barn was announced at 11,947 for both sessions.