We are still marveling over Spencer Lee's incredible NCAA Championship run over the weekend and what better way to celebrate his excellence than by watching his matches again? And don't worry about having to carve out too much time to watch five wrestling matches -- most of them don't last very long.
Up first is a little bit of history: Spencer Lee's NCAA Tournament debut against unseeded Alonzo Allen from Chattanooga. Allen will always be the answer to the trivia question "Who was Spencer Lee's first opponent at the NCAA Tournament?" He was also the quickest victim of Spencer's tour of destruction through the 125 lb bracket. Lee took Allen down within seconds and immediately took him to Tilt Town. He racked up an 18-0 technical fall -- a 2-point takedown and four different sets of 4-point nearfall points -- in just over 90 seconds. Spencer Lee doesn't toy with his food.
In the second round, Lee took on a familiar face -- 14th seeded Luke Welsh from Purdue, who he had just demolished with a 16-0 technical fall in the 3rd place match at the Big Ten Tournament two weeks prior. Like his first match in Cleveland, Lee won with another 18-0 technical fall, although this time he actually had to wrestle into the second period to finish things off. If you're keeping track, though, Lee wrestled 5 minutes and 40 seconds on Thursday and outscored his opponents by a combined margin of 36-0.
Friday morning, Spencer Lee resumed his rampage with a quarterfinal showdown against Oklahoma State's Nick Piccininni, the #6 seed at the NCAA Tournament. Piccininni was one of Lee's few decision wins in the regular season, dropping a 10-5 decision to him at the Iowa-Oklahoma State dual meet in January. In that match Lee bolted out to an early lead before seeming to run out of energy late and give up a few takedowns to Piccininni. That wasn't an issue in the rematch -- Lee's energy levels seemed excellent throughout the tournament and he kept the pedal to the medal against Piccininni until the finish in this one.
After leading 6-1 after the first (thanks to his customary takedown followed by 4-point nearfall sequence), Lee got an escape (7-1), another takedown (9-1), a 2-point nearfall (11-1), and a chicken wing to a pin on the edge of the mat. BOOM. This match was arguably the best showcase for Lee in the entire tournament as he really got to show off his entire repertoire of incredible skills. In addition to his very solid attacks from neutral (which have come a long way over the course of this season -- just think about how some of his neutral offense looked in December and January versus what he was doing to some of the very best wrestlers in the country here), Lee's defense and scrambling ability are also incredible. Take a look at the sequence that begins at the 4:20 mark of this video (1:52 in the second period) when Piccininni actually gets in DEEP on Lee's right leg on a shot. Lee looks dead to rights on several occasions throughout the ensuing scramble but his flexibility and strength enable him to fight off those attacks and -- ten seconds later -- he's the one blasting into a double leg takedown on Piccininni.
Friday night brought one of the most anticipated bouts of the entire NCAA Tournament: the rubber match between Spencer Lee and Ohio State's Nathan Tomasello, the #2 seed. Lee beat Tomasello 3-2 in the regular season thanks to a hard second period ride-out and a pair of escape points. Tomasello won the rematch 2-1 at the Big Ten Tournament semifinals thanks to a decision to go neutral instead of going on bottom and then securing a takedown late in the third period. The big question ahead of the rubber match: could Lee take down Tomasello from neutral?
Around 1:20 into the first period Lee answered that question: yes. Using his devastating fireman's carry Lee got underneath Tomasello and got to his legs -- and once he gets to your legs, odds are he's going to finish. He did just that and proceeded to flatten him and out ride him for the remainder of the period. He even managed to take him on a trip to Tilt Town in the final seconds of the period, although he could only get a 2-count nearfall before time expired.
I'm not gonna lie: when Lee went into the second period with a 4-0 lead on NaTo I felt very, very, very good about his chances of winning the match. At that point NaTo was going to need to get multiple takedowns on Lee or catch him in a big move. Either approach was going to be very, very difficult. He did manage to get one takedown in the second to cut the lead to 4-2 (then 5-2 after Lee's escape), but Lee got an escape to start the third (6-2). Lee again showed off his incredible strength (go to around the 7:58 mark of the video below) when Tomasello got in deep on a shot; Lee just powers out of it with his hips. 15 seconds later he's back on the attack and in on NaTo's legs; a desperate Tomasello then tries to scramble free... and, look, you scramble with Lee at your peril. 15 seconds later the ref is slapping the mat to end the match. Spencer Lee, pinning his way to the damn NCAA finals over a 4-time All-American.
And then the finals match itself against Rutgers' Nick Suriano, the #4 seed, and the crowning moment for Lee at this tournament. The opponent was again a familiar face, although this time from high school days, not collegiate competition. Lee and Suriano wrestled twice in the Super 32 Tournament, once when Lee was an 8th grader (Suriano won) and again when Lee was a 9th grader (Lee won). Their paths didn't cross again until Saturday night, when they had the rubber match five years in the making. Lee came out on top in a match that wasn't as high-scoring as his previous four bouts, but still showed off an impressive level of dominance.
Suriano has been one of the top 125ers since his debut as a true freshman last year, losing just one match in two years outside of two injury defaults, a narrow 3-2 decision defeat against Thomas Gilman, Lee's predecessor in the 125 lb weight at Iowa. Suriano hadn't given up a single takedown to any of his four previous opponents at the NCAA Tournament (nor had he given up many to any opponents this season) and, hell, he hadn't even given up a single point to an opponent at the NCAA Tournament prior to the finals.
Of course, he hadn't wrestled Spencer Lee yet, either. After a mostly cagey first period when both wrestlers seemed to be feeling each other out, Lee pounced first and got to Suriano's right leg with 20 seconds remaining in the period, finishing the takedown with five seconds remaining. He didn't have enough time left to accumulate much riding time or try to work one of his masterful tilts, but Lee still had first blood in the match and a 2-0 lead heading to the second. In the second, Lee got an escape 10 seconds in and extended his lead to 3-0. Suriano put together two of his best attacks of the match shortly after that escape, getting to Lee's leg with 1:40 left in the period, but not being able to get deep enough to finish the shot, and then trapping Lee's arm and going to take him to the mat at around the 1:32 point the period. Once again Lee's incredible strength and balance proved decisive and he was able to get free with no damage being done (or points being awarded).
The start of the third period gave a brilliant example of just how fearsome Lee's ability from the top position is to his opponents. Nick Suriano, an outstanding wrestler and undefeated on the season, had his choice to start the period -- and he chose neutral rather than risk going underneath Lee. In the third period of a national championship match in which he was trailing 3-0. Elite wrestlers almost always choose down because for them getting an escape should be easy; now the very best wrestlers at 125 lbs like Suriano and Tomasello (who chose neutral in his second and third matches against Lee after getting ridden for an entire period in their first match) are staying away from that possibility because it's more likely that they'll get ridden out (or worse, tilted for nearfall points) by Lee than it is that they'll get an escape. Lee is so good that he's warping basic match strategy for even his very best opponents.
The third period offered one final reminder of Lee's brilliance and ability to turn defense into offense in the blink of an eye. With 1:32 to go in the match and trailing 3-0, Suriano got in deep on Lee's left leg. He seemed poised to finish and possibly make the match 3-2, which would have set up a very thrilling finish. Except he never finished the shot: Lee held tight on his arm to keep him from finishing, then flipped around and got hold of Suriano's leg. The finish wasn't quite academic -- it took another 20 seconds of hard scrambling, but Lee would not be denied. That gave him a 5-0 lead and top position with a minute remaining. Good night, Nick Suriano.
Lee's greatness on the mat was well-documented, but he was pretty impressive off the mat as well. This video of Lee walking through the back of the arena to the media area for his post-match press obligations after winning the championship (and celebrating briefly with teammates Alex Marinelli and Michael Kemerer) is pretty cool:
SPENCER LEE!!! The 125-pound national champ. pic.twitter.com/431BwzbroP
— FloWrestling (@FloWrestling) March 18, 2018
And Lee gives some excellent responses to the media questions in that post-match press conference as well:
Five matches, five wins. Four bonus point wins, including two 18-0 technical falls and two pins. The 125 lb weight class was one of the deepest and toughest weights in the entire field at this year's NCAA Tournament -- and Spencer Lee just completely owned it from start to finish. And, oh yeah, he's only a true freshman. As Marinelli put it to The Des Moines Register's Cody Goodwin, "These [125ers] don't want to face Spencer Lee, but they're stuck with him for three more years.
"And that's scary."