CHAPEL HILL, N.C. — The back end of Pitt’s wrestling lineup impressed and dominated their opponents Friday night at Carmichael Arena. Nino Bonaccorsi and Demetrius Thomas each notched major decisions, while Kellan Stout posted a 6-1 victory.
Unfortunately for the No. 9 Panthers, those individual wins weren’t enough to pull them out of a deep hole in a dual meet against No. 8 North Carolina. In a clash featuring a pair of top 10 teams, the Tar Heels won the matches that really mattered and built a big lead against Pitt, cruising to a 22-14 triumph.
North Carolina (12-2; 3-1 ACC) won six matches on the night, while Pitt (9-4; 2-2 ACC) won four. After Micky Phillippi’s win in the 133-pound class, UNC won five straight bouts.
“I think that we – in some of those toss-up matches – gave up big points,” Pitt head coach Keith Gavin said. “157 and 165 are toss-ups and in both of those, we gave up a six-point move. That’s going to be tough to come back from against some pretty good guys. The fight was good in those matches, but those are huge costly mistakes. … It didn’t feel very good.”
Out of the five straight matches that UNC won, there were really three coin-flip type bouts in the middle of the lineup card that each featured two ranked wrestlers going at each other. The first was the 141-pound clash, which saw UNC’s No. 11 Zach Sherman beat Pitt’s No. 23 Cole Matthews. With 14 seconds to go though, Matthews only trailed by a point, but he just couldn’t get ahold of Sherman and bring him down to the mat for a takedown.
The next match was the outlier. UNC’s No. 3 Austin O’Connor made quick work of Pitt redshirt sophomore Dallas Bulsak in the 149-weight class, pinning him in the second period.
In the 157-pound match-up, Pitt’s No. 23 Taleb Rahmani scored first against UNC’s No. 14 A.C. Headlee on a reversal, but then Headlee scored six straight points en route to a 10-4 win.
UNC started strong in the 165-pound bout as No. 15 Kennedy Monday took a six-point lead. But No.11 Jake Wentzel fought back, cutting the deficit to three points. With 24 seconds remaining in the third period, the match was stopped and reset for blood on the mat. Monday was limping too, but wound up outlasting Wentzel, sprawling out on the mat and refusing to give him an opportunity to score.
In the 174-pound fight, UNC’s No. 30 Clay Lautt majored Pitt’s Hunter Kernan, notching five takedowns and a near fall, paving the way for a 14-5 win.
“Overall, we just didn’t score enough points,” Gavin said. “I think we wrestled a little too tight. And that’s easy to say, (UNC) is a good team, so it’s hard to score a ton of points. But I would’ve liked to have seen us try to do that more. In some matches we did.”
While the chance at a dual win was slim at that point, Pitt still salvaged some impressive individual victories. In the 132-pound match, Phillipi – ranked fifth in the nation – didn’t allow his opponent to score a single point. After a strong hand fight in the first period, Phillipi scored on an escape and then tossed UNC’s No. 32 Jaime Hernandez onto the mat for a takedown, leading to a 3-0 win. It was Phillipi’s 22nd victory on the season.
In the 184-pound class, No. 9 Nino Bonaccorsi picked up his 19th win of the year, getting a 16-8 major decision for Pitt over UNC’s Joe Mazzarra. In the 197-pound bout, Kellan Stout won his ninth match of the year over Brandon Whitman.
“I liked how Kellan wrestled. Kellan wrestled well,” Gavin said. “To go get that last takedown, I really like to see that where, he didn’t just try to hang on. He closed the door on that one and went out on top.”
While a team win was out of reach for Pitt, Demetrius Thomas – the reigning heavyweight champ of the ACC – remained focused. He saw his match as an opportunity to work on some things, to push himself and to get better. By the end of it, he was breathing heavily and covered in sweat, but it was all worth it for his 18th win of the season.
“That’s just me working on myself. It just makes you a better wrestler when you score a lot of points and expose yourself,” Thomas said. “That’s what I’m trying to do now before the time comes where the matches really matter, as far as ACC’s and national championships. I’m just making sure I keep my attack rate high, but also practice not getting exposed.”
Ranked 10th in the nation, the hulking senior from Ferguson, Missouri set an example for his teammates.
Thomas could’ve toyed with his opponent. He could’ve built a small lead and then stalled. Instead, he just kept going at UNC’s No. 29 Andrew Gunning, notching four takedowns in a 12-4 victory for his eighth major decision of the year.
“You just have to treat it as – I’m out there wrestling my opponent. I can’t let my teammates losing affect how I wrestle,” Thomas said. “It’s my match. I just have to compete my best. … I try give them an example of, ‘Hey, be that guy, so that you’re not the one making up for it at the end.’”
Added Gavin: “Meech wrestled awesome tonight. He put out a ton of effort. For him, it’s a lot of his second and third attempts are what scores. So, that’s been his focus and it was nice to see him do that.”
Pitt has just one dual meet remaining – slated next Saturday at home against Virginia Tech – before it hosts the ACC Wrestling Championships at the Petersen Events Center on March 8. Between now and then, the Panthers who lost Friday will try to learn from their defeats and get better for when the matches really matter.
“You need to make adjustments and they’re not far off. The ACC tournament and the NCAA’s are where you want to get them,” Gavin said. “Obviously, you want to win everything, but it’s important we learn from this, make some small adjustments and move forward.