TULSA, Okla. — There are no style points in the NCAA Division I wrestling championship, so Nino Bonaccorsi was fine with “winning big” 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 difficult day for Pitt’s wrestling team.
Micky Phillippi (133 pounds), Cole Matthews (141), Holden Heller (165) and Reece Heller (184) were eliminated from the competition and the Panthers are tied for 21st place with Northern Colorado.
“I’m so happy for Nino, and his heart goes out to Cole and Micky,” said head coach Keith Gavin after Phillippi and Matthews each took a win en route to earning All-American honors. “It’s brutal. It’s a rollercoaster, emotionally.”
Laird scored the first takedown against Bonaccorsi – the first the supersenior has given up in the tournament – but the lead didn’t last long. Bonaccorsi scored a takedown and set up Laird to a 3-2 lead after one period.
“I knew I had to do a grinder fight,” said Bonaccorsi. “I couldn’t be perfect with my settings or shots. I wanted to go in there and make it kind of ugly. As you saw, I got knocked down first. That wasn’t part of the plan, but making it ugly is what I wanted to do.
A quick breakaway and takedown a minute later extended the lead to 6-2. Bonaccorsi continued to press the action and managed a stall point before the end of the second.
Laird got away twice in the third, but a third fall and a point on driving time gave Bonaccorsi his second double-digit point total of the tournament.
“He made that semifinal look so easy, but we know it’s not easy,” said Gavin, whose 2008 174-pound title is the last time a Panther has won a national crown.
Bonaccorsi is returning to the finals after losing there in 2021.
“It’s definitely a great experience,” he said. “Few people can say they made it to the finals twice. The first time didn’t go my way, so God gave me a second chance to redeem myself. I will do everything to get there and win this match.”
Tanner Sloan of South Dakota State, the seventh seed, will face Bonaccorsi, who is 20-0 and the top seed, for the title.
Bonaccorsi made it to the semifinals with a solid win over Big Ten champion Silas Allred of Nebraska. Using his patented one-legged drop to the distant ankle twice in the opening minutes, he built a 4-2 lead after the first period. Allred escaped and came close to a takedown but couldn’t make it, a decision that was upheld in the review.
Needing an escape to not lose a point in race time, Bonaccorsi scored with 34 seconds left in the third. He dug in on a shot that wasted time and nearly finished at the buzzer, but didn’t get the two points and won 5–3.
Matthews lost devastatingly in the quarterfinals to Beau Bartlett of Penn State. After negotiation breakouts, the fight went into overtime and there were no points in the sudden victory period, although Bartlett came close in the dying seconds.
After eliminating Bartlett in the first tiebreaker period, he chose neutral for the second. He fought off Bartlett’s attempts for the first 22 seconds as they went out of bounds. Matthews hadn’t been called out for stalling so all he had to do was avoid Bartlett for eight seconds, but Nittany’s Lion scored a takedown that withstood the challenge from Pitt’s corner, giving Matthews a 3-2 defeat.
The tiebreaker was no better for Matthews in the blood round. Facing Ohio State’s Dylan D’Emilio, he gave up a breakaway two seconds into the period, forcing him to choose neutral in the second half of the tiebreaker. He failed to land a winning takedown and lost 2-1.
Gavin was asked about Matthews not running away from Bartlett in the semifinal, especially as he was not warned for stalling.
“I think the biggest problem with Cole, and this is obvious, is he needs to start pulling the trigger,” Gavin said. “We’re screaming from the corner, especially on the last one, ‘You’ve got to kick!’ But I understand. He was rewarded for fighting like this. He placed fifth in this tournament, being an All-American for the first time last year, and it was the same thing: no offense, counter offense and top.
The good news for Matthews, who was a 2022 All-American, is that he has one more year at Pitt. That’s not the case for Phillippi, who suffered a bloody defeat for the fourth time, this time a 5-1 loss to Virginia Tech’s Sam Latona.
For Gavin, those four defeats will not define Phillippi’s legacy at Pitt.
“Micky ended up having a great career here,” Gavin said. “Also, Micky changed our program. He was the first guy to board. He is a person of incredible character. I am grateful to have had the opportunity to train him. What he has done for the show cannot be overstated.”
Phillippi won two fights on Friday morning. He controlled Iowa’s Brody Teske from the top spot and scored a takedown to clinch a 4-1 victory, then beat Chattanooga’s Brayden Palmer 6-3.
hellers came home
Holden and Reece Heller saw their seasons come to an end in the Friday morning session. Reece Heller lost his second-round consolation bout via takedown to Rutgers’ Brian Soldano.
Holden won his bout in the second round, defeating West Virginia’s Peyton Hall 9-7 in a knockout victory
“It’s not the kind of fight where you grab a takedown,” said Holden Heller. “He fights the same way I do, and I knew it was going to be a war of disputes.”
Unfortunately for Holden Heller, his season came to a painful end a round later. He suffered an injury while fighting Northern Illinois’ Izzak Olejnik and tried to continue, but Pitt’s coaching staff stopped the fight when it became obvious that he could not compete at his normal level.
“Pitt’s Holden Heller suffered a rib injury that resulted in his medical loss from the NCAA Round of 16 game. X-rays came back negative and he is expected to make a full recovery,” according to a statement from the athletic department.