Duke wrestling drops heartbreaker to North Carolina on senior night

No. 7 Conner Hartmann took down North Carolina's Chip Ness 6-0 in Wednesday's 16-15 loss.
No. 7 Conner Hartmann took down North Carolina's Chip Ness 6-0 in Wednesday's 16-15 loss.

Despite spilling their blood and sweat, the Blue Devils fell a point short against their Tobacco Road rivals.

In heartbreaking fashion, Duke fell to bitter rival No. 25 North Carolina in Card Gymnasium 16-15 on senior night. The Blue Devils fought hard from start to finish but could not pull out the victory in the final match of the night. The Tar Heels have now won 41 of the previous 42 meetings, dominating the overall series 66-24.

“It’s tough because I feel for our seniors,” head coach Glen Lanham said. “I wanted to beat this team. We are capable of it. I have to believe what I say, ‘Don’t get too high with the wins and too low with the losses.’”

Duke (10-5, 1-3 in the ACC) took to the mats riding a five-match win streak, but the Tar Heels (10-4, 2-2) came in on a hot streak of their own after upsetting then-No. 12 Virginia at home last Saturday. Tensions were high from the onset—both sides were looking for bragging rights for the year to come.

For Duke, however, there was more to the match than defeating a rival—it was about honoring a group of seniors that put Duke wrestling back on the map. Marcus Cain, Brendan Fowler, Brandon Gambucci, Tanner Hough, Immanuel Kerr-Brown and Dylan Ryan were all recognized prior to the dual.

“When I came in here, those guys bought in to what we believed in, and that’s a total student-athlete,” Lanham said. “These guys respect my family because they know that you take time from your family. I was on pins and needles all night.”

In storybook fashion, Kerr-Brown ended his Duke career with a thrilling triple-overtime win 3-2 over redshirt senior Chris Mears. To the chagrin of the North Carolina bench—which received a team conduct penalty after the match—Kerr-Brown was awarded a penalty point for a stall in the second overtime.

“When I got the stalling point I was like, ‘I’ve got this,’” the redshirt senior said. “‘Do the little things right and just stay solid and I’m going to win this match.’”

After tying the match on the penalty, the Rome, Ga., native made a quick escape in the final overtime to capture the victory in his last home match in a Blue Devil singlet.

“It has meant so much,” Kerr-Brown said. “Being a part of Duke wrestling makes me excited…. It makes me proud to be a Blue Devil.”

Marcus Cain was the only other senior Blue Devil to grapple on the night, and he would not disappoint the home faithful either. With a 2-0 career record against redshirt junior Christian Barber, his Tar Heel opponent was looking for revenge as a way to spoil the senior’s night.

Cain would have none of it.

Entering the third period, the score was knotted 2-2, but a quick escape and takedown put the Winston Salem, N.C., native in the driver’s seat on his way to a 6-4 victory and an undefeated record against Barber.

“We had a chip on our shoulder to go out there and punch these guys in the mouth,” Kerr-Brown said. “Just wrestle hard and at the end of the day just give it our best. That was a big driving factor.”

With the score 16-12 in favor of North Carolina, it all came down to the heavyweight class, where redshirt junior Brendan Walsh faced off against senior Frank Abbondanza to decide the dual.

In true rivalry fashion, blood was spilled.

Walsh and Abbondanza both put their bodies on the line for their respective teams. Walsh came off the mat at the end of the first period bleeding from his ear. Not long after—fighting to maintain the lead for his squad—Abbondanza did the same.

In the end, Walsh fought his way furiously to a 5-0 minor decision victory, but it would not be enough to capture the comeback for Duke. But for the first time in more than 10 years, the Blue Devils nearly pulled off the upset and kept the score within double-digits.

“We wanted it,” Lanham said. “What you get out of it is that these guys know that Duke wrestling is here to stay…. It’s going to continue to be a great rivalry because we are going to start winning.”

Freshman Thayer Atkins and No. 7 Conner Hartmann also captured victories against the Tar Heels. Atkins captured his fourth win of the season with his 7-2 minor decision at the 125-weight class. Hartmann continued his impressive season as the highest ranked grappler in the ACC at 197 pounds. He now moves to 15-2 overall and 11-1 in duals.

In their final ACC matchup of the year, the Blue Devils will hit the road to face off against No. 9 Virginia Tech Feb. 14.

“We have got to be ready for that,” Lanham said. “We’re going to practice tomorrow and Friday and then get ready to go on the road and wrestle our heart out.”


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