One last time, wrestling fans got to see what they had seen so many times before. The last match of Ben Askren’s career ended the way most did: with style, flair and a victory.
Askren defeated No. 2 Keith Gavin of Pittsburgh 8-2 Saturday to claim his second straight national championship and end his Tigers’ career with an 87-match winning streak. Askren completed his second-straight undefeated season. For the final time, Askren blew kisses to the crowd and bowed. It was exactly what one would expect — typical Askren.
At the end of the night, though, Tigers fans at the Palace of Auburn Hills (Mich.) saw a sight that was far from ordinary. When team trophies were awarded, Missouri was on the podium. The Tigers finished third, with 80 points, behind Minnesota, which won the championship with 98 points, and Iowa State, second with 88.5. Missouri’s previous best finish was 10th.
“It’s a great day for our program,” Missouri coach Brian Smith said. “I know the administration and the state are very proud.”
Askren’s 174-pound championship didn’t come without a battle. After his semifinal win over Iowa’s Ryan Luedke Friday night, in which Luedke was called for stalling twice, Askren criticized the Hawkeyes wrestler, saying he “didn’t take one step forward the entire match.”
Gavin, though, came right at Askren, scoring a takedown to take 2-0 lead. After two Askren escapes, the match was tied at 2 going into the third period.
Askren appeared unusually tentative, and was given a stalling warning early in the period. That appeared to fire up Askren, though. Immediately after the call, Askren nearly pinned Gavin, picking up two points for a takedown and a three-point nearfall to put the match away. A point for riding time made it an 8-2 final.
Askren was unusually emotional after the match and highly critical of his own performance.
“I backed up,” he said. “I didn’t wrestle my best. I’m ashamed of that. I would have liked to go out a bit differently. I think I left a bad impression. I didn’t give it my best, and that’s what I usually do. Hopefully, I’ll be remembered for giving it my best almost every single night, just not tonight.”
The team title was in doubt until the penultimate match of the tournament, when a loss by Iowa State’s Kurt Backes in the 197-pound championship clinched the title for the Gophers. Minnesota appeared ready to run away with the title after Day 1, but fell victim to many upsets on the second day and was left with just one champion, Cole Konrad at heavyweight.
Before the tournament, most assumed the Tigers could not compete with the Gophers because of a lack of depth behind Ben and Max Askren. As it turned out, though, Missouri would have won the team title if top-seeded Max Askren would have been able to win an individual title. Ben Askren became emotional when asked about his younger brother’s shocking 0-2 finish.
“I didn’t have time to reflect on it at all,” he said, struggling to fight back tears. “Looking back at it, Max is fine. But I should be watching him wrestle (in the 197-pound championship) right now. He deserves to be wrestling now. It’s frustrating.”
After Max Askren’s losses, it appeared Missouri might struggle to stay in the top five. But the Tigers were boosted by a huge performance from senior Matt Pell.
Pell, the No. 9 seed at 165 pounds, pinned Michigan’s Eric Tannenbaum to finish in third place. After falling to top-seeded Johny Hendricks of Oklahoma State in the quarterfinals, Pell won four straight matches. He picked up four pins, the most of anyone in the tournament, and a major decision, earning big bonus points for Missouri.
“It was the best tournament that I have ever wrestled,” Pell said. “Right now it is a great feeling to be able to prove to myself that I am better than (my seed).”
Missouri 133-pounder Tyler McCormick lost both of his matches Saturday but finished sixth and earned All-American honors for the second straight year. Raymond Jordan fell just one match short of placing in the top eight when he lost 6-3 to Harvard’s Louis Caputo on Friday.
Although the Tigers failed to reach their ultimate goal of a team national title, Ben Askren said he was not disappointed.
“We’re in third place, and I’m not ashamed at all,” he said. “I’m so proud of the guys.”