TULSA, Okla. – There are no style points in the NCAA Division I Wrestling Championships, so Nino Bonaccorsi was just fine with “winning ugly” for a shot at the 197-pound title.
Bonaccorsi beat Rider’s Ethan Laird 10-4 on Friday night to advance to Saturday’s championship match and help salvage what had been a very rough day for the Pitt wrestling team.
Micky Phillippi (133 pounds), Cole Matthews (141), Holden Heller (165) and Reece Heller (184) were each eliminated from the competition and the Panthers are tied for 21st place with Northern Colorado.
“I’m really happy for Nino, and your heart’s with Cole and Micky,” coach Keith Gavin said after Phillippi and Matthews each came up one victory short of earning All-American honors. “It’s brutal. It’s a roller coaster, emotionally.”
Laird scored the opening takedown against Bonaccorsi – the first that the super senior has given up in the tournament – but the lead didn’t last long. Bonaccorsi scored a takedown and rode Laird out for a 3-2 lead after one period.
“I knew that I had to make it a grinder match,” Bonaccorsi said. “I couldn’t be pitch perfect with my setups or shots. I wanted to go out there and make it kind of ugly. As you saw, I got taken down first. That wasn’t part of the plan but making it ugly was what I wanted to do.”
A quick escape and a takedown a minute later extended the lead to 6-2. Bonaccorsi continued to press the action and picked up a stalling point before the end of the second.
Laird escaped twice in the third, but a third takedown and a riding-time point gave Bonaccorsi his second double-digit point total of the tournament.
“He made that semifinal look pretty easy, but we know it’s not easy,” said Gavin, whose 2008 title at 174 pounds is the last time a Panther won a national crown.
Bonaccorsi is returning to the finals after losing there in 2021.
“It’s definitely great experience,” he said. “Not many people can say they made the finals twice. The first time it didn’t go my way, so God’s given me a second chance to redeem myself. I’m going to do everything I can to go out there and win that match.”
South Dakota State’s Tanner Sloan, the No. 7 seed, will face Bonaccorsi, who is 20-0 and the top seed, for the title.
Bonaccorsi reached the semifinal round with a solid win over Big Ten champ Silas Allred of Nebraska. Using his patented single-leg-to-far-ankle takedown twice in the opening minutes, he built a 4-2 lead after the first period. Allred escaped and came close to a takedown but didn’t get it, a decision that was upheld on review.
Needing an escape to avoid giving up a riding-time point, Bonaccorsi scored it with 34 seconds remaining in the third. He got in deep on a time-wasting shot that he nearly finished at the buzzer but wasn’t awarded the two points and won 5-3.
Matthews lost a heartbreaker in the quarterfinals to Penn State’s Beau Bartlett. After trading escapes, the bout went to overtime, and there were no points in the sudden-victory period, although Bartlett came close in the closing seconds.
After riding Bartlett out in the first tiebreaker period, he chose neutral for the second. He fought off Bartlett’s attempts for the first 22 seconds, when they went out of bounds. Matthews had not been called for stalling, so all he needed to do was avoid Bartlett for eight seconds, but the Nittany Lion scored a takedown that withstood the Pitt corner’s challenge, dealing Matthews a 3-2 setback.
The tiebreaker wasn’t any better to Matthews in the blood round. Facing Ohio State’s Dylan D’Emilio, he gave up an escape two seconds into the period, forcing him to choose neutral in the second half of the tiebreaker. He couldn’t come up with a winning takedown and lost 2-1.
Gavin was asked about Matthews’ not running from Bartlett in the semifinal, especially since he had not been warned for stalling.
“I think the bigger issue with Cole, and this is obvious, is he’s got to start pulling the trigger,” Gavin said. “We’re screaming from the corner, especially in the last one, ‘You’ve got to shoot!’ But I get it. He’s been rewarded for wrestling like that. He got fifth at this tournament, first time being an All-American last year, and it was the same thing: No offense, counter-offense and top.”
The good news for Matthews, who was an All-American in 2022, is that he’s got another year at Pitt. That’s not the case for Phillippi, who suffered a blood-round loss for the fourth time, this one a 5-1 setback to Virginia Tech’s Sam Latona.
For Gavin, those four losses won’t define Phillippi’s legacy at Pitt.
“Micky’s done, and he had a great career here,” Gavin said. “Not only that, Micky changed our program. He was the first guy to jump on board. He’s an incredible character person. I’m grateful that I had the opportunity to coach him. What he did for the program cannot be overstated.”
Phillippi won a pair of bouts on Friday morning. He controlled Iowa’s Brody Teske from the top position and scored a takedown to ice a 4-1 victory, then beat Chattanooga’s Brayden Palmer 6-3.
Hellers headed home
Holden and Reece Heller each saw their seasons end in Friday morning’s session. Reece Heller lost his second-round consolation bout by fall to Rutgers’ Brian Soldano.
Holden won his second-round bout, beating West Virginia’s Peyton Hall 9-7 in sudden victory
“It’s not the type of match where you hang on to one takedown,” Holden Heller said. “He wrestles similar to the way that I do, and I knew it was going to be a war of scrambles.”
Unfortunately for Holden Heller, his season came to a painful end a round later. He suffered an injury while wrestling Northern Illinois’ Izzak Olejnik and attempted to continue, but the Pitt coaching staff stopped the match when it was obvious that he could not compete at his normal level.
“Pitt’s Holden Heller sustained a rib injury that resulted in him medically forfeiting his NCAA Round of 16 match. X-rays were negative and he is expected to make a full recovery,” according to a release from the athletic department.