MADISON, Wis. – There are better places to guess the score of a wrestling match than trying to read it on Derek St. John’s face.
Whether he’s winning in the NCAA finals or in the middle of a Big Ten semifinal scrap with all but one section of the Kohl Center rooting against him, the flat-line demeanor has served the Iowa senior well throughout his career.
It did once again Saturday night.
St. John kept his wits throughout a tense 157-pound bout against top-seeded Wisconsin freshman Isaac Jordan, kicking away for an escape with a mere 4 seconds remaining to win a 4-3 tiebreaker that epitomized the night for the Hawkeyes at the Big Ten Championships.
Iowa gritted out five consecutive semifinal victories, winning four one-point decisions and another in comeback fashion to keep itself in contention for the conference title.
“That’s how (Iowa coach) Tom (Brands) says you’re going to win championships as a team,” said Iowa junior Nick Moore, who brushed off an early deficit to beat Minnesota’s Danny Zilverberg 8-5 in the semifinals at 165 pounds. “You’ve got to put streaks together and that’s how you’re going to win, especially against teams like Minnesota and Penn State.”
Led by five No. 1 seeds who reached this afternoon’s championship round, the Nittany Lions finished the day with 122 points, one more than the second-place Hawkeyes.
Minnesota melted during a 1-8 semifinal round, plummeting to a 36-point deficit after seizing the lead earlier in the day with nine consecutive quarterfinal wins.
The Hawkeyes, on the other hand, rode a wave of momentum throughout the semifinals after freshman Cory Clark lost a 4-3 decision to Illinois’ Jesse Delgado at 125.
The run started with a dramatic comeback win by Tony Ramos at 133 and nearly spilled into their last match. But Penn State’s top-seeded Morgan McIntosh scored a reversal in the closing seconds to beat Nathan Burak 3-2 in a tiebreaker at 197.
After the go-ahead score slipped through his hands on the edge of the mat with 26 seconds remaining, Ramos scored on a double-leg takedown eight ticks later and rode Purdue’s Cashe Quiroga the rest of the way to win an 8-7 decision.
“You keep going because it’s going to get easier and easier every time,” he said. “You get to the legs once, and he’s going to be fighting. You get there again, and he’s going to fight and start wearing down. You get there again, and you’re finishing.”
St. John, Moore, Mike Evans and Ethen Lofthouse followed it up with a series of gut-check wins.
Evans scored a first-period takedown and held off Penn State’s Matt Brown late to win a 3-2 decision at 174. Lofthouse struck first and hung on for a 5-4 win at 184 against Minnesota’s Kevin Steinhaus.
No victory, though, was more satisfying for the Hawkeyes than St. John’s.
Two weeks ago, he dropped a 3-1 decision to Jordan in the final regular-season match of his career at Iowa. The Wisconsin freshman flexed as the Badgers celebrated, and the post-match scene ruffled some Hawkeye feathers.
“That match was a lot of fun for me, because we were here two weeks ago and they were giving it to us pretty good in that match,” Brands said. “I know we’ve got another tournament where we could see (Jordan), but that’s pretty good satisfaction.”
St. John scored a reversal with nine seconds remaining in the third period to push the bout into overtime. He rode Jordan for the first 30-second tiebreak session and then kicked away for the winning escape.
“It’s just something I possess and really developed over my wrestling career,” St. John said of his calm demeanor. “If an opponent can’t see it and you know you’re going to stay calm in your head and keep attacking and keep wrestling, it’s something that helps the match go your way a little bit more.”