CLEVELAND, Ohio — The last time it happened, it was Steve Mocco. The time before it was Lincoln McIlravy.
Now it’s Spencer Lee.
Iowa’s sensational true freshman electrified a crowd of better than 18,000 Friday at Quicken Loans Arena with a thrilling pin of Ohio State’s Nathan Tomasello in 6 minutes, 5 seconds in a 125-pound semifinal match at the NCAA Division I wrestling championships.
It is the first time a Hawkeye true freshman has reached the NCAA finals since Mocco did it in 2002.
Lee, one of the most heralded recruits in the Tom Brands’ era, has been dominant all tournament long.
“He’s an amazing opponent,” Lee said. “To be able to wrestle him on that big of a stage is almost an honor for me. But to do that with that many fans screaming and yelling, whether it’s against you or for you, it still excites you and it’s a lot of fun.”
Lee and Tomasello, the 2015 national champion who had finished third twice as well, split two regular-season matches. Tomasello beat Lee in the Big Ten finals, 2-1, in the most recent match.
But Lee, who had not recorded a takedown in his first two meetings with Tomasello, scored on a duck-under with 1:43 left in the first period and then added two near fall points with a tilt with :01 left in the period to lead 4-0 after one.
It was 5-2 after two periods when Tomasello had Lee on the run. THat’s when Lee heard coaches Terry Brands and Ben Berhow from his corner.
“The coaches ... ‘You’ve got to wrestle, you have to wrestle. This is your match,’” Lee said. “And instead of backing out, almost taking the easy way out, the coaches were telling me, you’ve got to make it hard not only on yourself, but your opponent.”
Lee then scored a takedown on the edge to go up 8-2. A scramble ensued, and Lee won it.
“I hit like almost a low shot, got in between his legs,” Lee said of the final flurry. “I kind of stood up and I threw his leg off to cut the corner, and he held on hard. He was fighting like any competitor would do. And I, just like pulled his legs up and ran over him.”
It was Lee’s second pin of the day. He pinned Nick Picininni of Oklahoma State in the quarterfinals, on top of two technical falls he recorded on day one.
He will face undefeated Nick Suriano of Rutgers in the finals.
“I think the difference in this match was believing in my offense and knowing this is a stage where you can’t really hold back and save anything that you have. You have to use everything you’ve got.”
Iowa’s other semifinalist, Alex Marinelli, lost to four-time NCAA finalist Isaiah Martinez of Illinois, 5-2, at 165.
The Hawkeyes will have five All-Americans altogether as Brandon Sorensen, Michael Kemerer and Sam Stoll will all finish sixth or better.
It is the fifth consecutive year Iowa has had at least five All-Americans.
The strong day two pushed Iowa solidly into third place in the team race behind Penn State and Ohio State. With five finalists, the Nittany Lions surged past the Buckeyes into first with 120.5 points. OSU has 109.5 and two finalists, while Iowa is third with 86.5.
“There was a lot of wrestling left after this morning, and there was a lot of wrestling left after yesterday,” Iowa head coach Tom Brands said. “We are getting to the end, we’ve got our guys in positions for placings.
“Spencer Lee is in the finals, we’ve got some guys that got upsets. Stoll and Sorensen came back strong. Kemerer came back strong. We’ve got five All-Americans. Marinelli is going to have to come back strong tomorrow morning, as well. We are riding a wave right now.”
Sorensen, the former Denver-Tripoli four-time state champion, has won four straight matches after losing in the second round, including three by major decision to become Iowa’s 20th four-time All-American.
Iowa State’s Jarrett Degen won morning matches over Steve Bleise of Minnesota and Sam Krivus of Virginia to reach the round of 12 where he lost to Arizona State’s Jason Tsirtsis, 4-3, as the freshman finished one win short of All-America status at 149.