But by late Saturday night, Penn State had the team lead. And by late Sunday afternoon, there was only hand raising for the Nittany Lions at Assembly Hall.
David Taylor (165), Matt Brown (174), Ed Ruth (184), and Quentin Wright (197) were all crowned Big Ten champions Sunday, as Penn State locked up its third straight conference team title with a school record 151 points. Minnesota finished second with 139 team points, while Iowa checked in at third with 133.5 point. All 10 Lions will head to the NCAA Championships two weekends from now in Des Moines, Iowa.
"They showed a lot of resilience just battling back,'' PSU head coach Cael Sanderson said of his team on the Big Ten Network. "These two days just give you a pretty good idea of how tough you are.''
Taylor opened the championship round for the Lions with a hard fought 9-1 major decision over Illinois' Conrad Polz, a performance that saw him control most of the action. It was Taylor's third Big Ten title, but more importantly, severed a tie in the team race with Minnesota. His driving and circling takedown with under 20 seconds to wrestle gave him the major and the Lions additional bonus points. Minnesota would never draw closer.
The lead was cemented by the Lions' next champ, as Brown capped off a validating tournament with a seeding upset, scoring a 7-3 decision victory over Iowa's Mike Evans at 174 pounds.
It's fun getting to wrestle this year. Last year, I watched Ed win it all, Brown told the Big Ten Network after his match. I thought to myself, I want to do that, and it was my goal. I wrote it down last year, and got a chance to do it this month.
The sophomore, wrestling a full season for the first time, had his ups and downs in the dual portion of the campaign. But he was undoubtedly at his best in Champaign. After a fall and a pair of decisions walked him into the final, he then saw Evans walked into a five-point throw midway through Sunday's second period with the bout tied at one. Evans ducked low to shoot in on a scoring opportunity, but Brown quickly hooked and flattened the Hawkeye, scoring a takedown and three back points in the process.
There was a lot of hand fighting the whole match, Brown said. He shot in, I countered, and put him right to his back.
Ruth then clinched a share of the conference team title with a 5-3 decision over a game Kevin Steinhaus of Minnesota, twice taking the Gopher down and escaping once to add a third conference crown to his ledger.
Wright finished off the perfect finals effort and cemented the outright team title with a pair of explosive double-leg blasts and an escape to reach the margin of victory.
But a team race is certainly not won in the finals, and several Nittany Lions chipped in from the consolation bracket. Nico Megaludis took third place at 125 pounds with a 4-1 decision over Michigan's Sean Boyle, while Jordan Conaway took 5th at 133 pounds in his first Big Ten Tournament, stopping Illinois' Daryl Thomas 4-1. Bryan Pearsall was fifth at 141 pounds after an exhilarating 4-2 triumph in sudden victory over Northwestern's Pat Greco. Andrew Alton (149) closed out the lower weight consolation action with a fourth-place finish, losing to Purdue's Ivan Lopouchanski by fall at the 4:08 mark of the second period in the third place match.
Consolation action continued in the upper weights, as Dylan Alton (157) fell to sixth place with a 6-2 loss to Minnesota's Danny Zilverberg in the fifth-place match, while heavyweight Jimmy Lawson was decked by Michigan State's Mike McClure at the 7:37 mark in sudden victory. He finished eighth.
The Lions were also strange bedfellows with a host of grapplers from programs' rival to Sanderson's club. Ohio State's Logan and Hunter Steiber, at 133 and 141, respectively, both beat Iowa wrestlers in the finals, the former 3-1 over the Hawkeyes' Tony Ramos, the latter by decision, 8-3, over Mark Ballweg. Illinois machine Jesse Delgado started off by helping the Lions at 125 pounds, denying Iowa's Matt McDonough a title with a 10-4 victory.
This marked the first time since 2006 Iowa did not crown at least one Big Ten individual champ.
Penn State now shifts its focus to a third straight NCAA title, which sees action kick-off March 20 with Session I.
Final Team Standings
1. 151.0 Penn State
2. 139.0 Minnesota
3. 133.5 Iowa
4. 109.5 Ohio State
5. 85.5 Illinois
6. 75.0 Michigan
7. 61.0 Nebraska
8. 56.0 Northwestern
9. 38.0 Purdue
10. 37.0 Wisconsin
11. 30.5 Indiana