OMAHA, Neb. — Missouri wrestler Max Askren became Missouri’s third wrestler ever to make the NCAA Wrestling Finals by defeating No. 7 seed Joe Leblanc of Wyoming in the semifinals 9-7 in overtime.
“Max did real well in the semis against a tough kid,” Missouri coach Brian Smith said. “But he’s been wrestling that way all year.”
After coming in with the No. 1 seed as a freshmac and losing his first two matches, followed by claiming All-American titles the past two seasons, Askren said he feels relieved to finally make the finals.
“(College-style wrestling) tournaments have never really been my thing,” Askren said. “I don't know why. I get really tense, and it seems like I put a lot of pressure on myself. It's not anyone putting that pressure on me — it's me doing that to myself.”
After trailing 5-0 in the semifinals, Askren came right back in the match, scoring four quick points. The match was tied at seven each at the end of regulation. In sudden-death overtime, Askren shot in immediately, grabbed both of LeBlanc’s legs, lifted him in the air and set him to the mat for the take down and win.
“I was buried pretty deep,” Askren said. “The semifinals of the NCAA Tournament are not a time to let go, get a stalemate and try again. I had that one opportunity, and I wasn't going to give it up. I was going to make the most of it, and things worked out.”
Askren will face the No. 1 seed, Boise State's Kirk Smith, in the championship Saturday night.
“Honestly, I haven’t seen him wrestle much,” Askren said. “I know he's a competitor, that he wrestles hard. He's going to make it a match; he's not going to stop. I know him off the mat a little bit, and he's a good person. We'll both go out and hopefully put on a show.”
Kirk Smith, who is undefeated on the season, also knows that he will have his hands full with Askren.
“He’s a good wrestler,” Kirk Smith said. “I remember watching him when I was in high school and thinking he was great then, but I’ve gotten a little better since high school too.”
Askren nearly didn’t get to the semifinal match. In his match against the No. 3 seed, Dustin Kilgore of Kent State, Kilgore got the first take down against Askren and then nearly locked up a cradle and put Askren to his back. However, Askren was able to break out of the cradle and get two points of his own to tie the match.
“He cradled me once, and he shouldn’t have,” Askren said of Kilgore. “Ben put me in that all the time, so for anyone else who’s going to try and put me in a cradle, come up with a different game plan.” Ben Askren is Max Askren's older brother and two-time NCAA champion.
Askren eventually upset Kilgore in the quarterfinals, 8-5.
Askren and senior Tiger teammate Mark Ellis are Missouri’s only All-Americans. Ellis will wrestle on Saturday morning to try and take third.
The match between Askren and Kirk Smith will take place on Saturday night and will be broadcast live on ESPN, starting at 6:30 C.T.
Missouri senior Nick Marable lost 7-4 to Cornell’s Justin Kerber to be eliminated from the tournament, making this Marable’s first NCAA Tournament where he was unable to become an All-American. In addition to Marable, junior Todd Schavrien, sophomore Dorian Henderson and freshman Brent Haynes have been eliminated.
Missouri currently stands in 1oth place in the team standings going into the final day of the tournament.