The most impressive part of Spencer Lee's title run? He kept getting better

Chad Leistikow
Hawk Central

CLEVELAND — A fan’s video of Terry Brands went viral Friday night. The excitable Iowa associate head coach was seen jumping up and down mat-side — again and again and again — as he watched Spencer Lee set up a stirring finishing move of Ohio State’s Nathan Tomasello.

After Lee completed the third-period pin, Brands leaped high into the arms of assistant Ben Berhow and was flipped upside down, eventually tumbling head-first to the ground.

Iowa's Spencer Lee celebrates after winning the 125 pound national championship over Rutgers' Nick Suriano at the NCAA Wrestling Championships at Quicken Loans Arena in Cleveland, Ohio on Saturday, March 17, 2018.

A night later, after seeing his Iowa wrestling room pupil walk off the mat with a 125-pound national championship, Brands’ memory of that moment was seemingly foggy.

“Here’s the thing. I don’t even really remember that. So I’m sorry about that,” Brands dead-panned.

But the reason for his celebration? Clear as day.

Brands saw Spencer Lee wasn’t himself two weeks ago at the Big Ten Championships, when he was unable to take down Tomasello in a 2-1 loss.

“As far as Spencer moving on, I was really excited for him,” Brands said. “He wanted that match. He knows he didn’t leave it all out there at the Big Tens. And it was really important that he redeemed himself from that setback.”

Third place at the Big Tens.

Even though Penn State's Bo Nickal was named the tournament's outstanding wrestler (an award voted on by coaches), Lee was the most dominant wrestler of the NCAA Championships. No wrestler here accounted for more team points than Lee — 27 of the maximum-possible 30.

Iowa's Spencer Lee wrestles Rutgers' Nick Suriano in the 125 pound national championship at the NCAA Wrestling Championships at Quicken Loans Arena in Cleveland, Ohio on Saturday, March 17, 2018. Lee won by decision, 5-1.

Lee’s mental acumen — to go with uncommon physical prowess — is something the Brands brothers spoke highly about Saturday night after Lee’s 5-1 decision against Rutgers’ Nick Suriano made him the program’s first true-freshman national champion since Lincoln McIlravy in 1993.

“He’s poised. Patient when he needs to be,” head coach Tom Brands said. “But also he can bring pressure. That’s a great combination to have. That means you’re focused. Or you’re wired the right way.”

While it was the only match of Lee’s five here to go the distance, it was nearly as dominant, nearly as flawless.

Lee did everything right. When Suriano would get in on a shot, he fought it off.

He never let the methodical-but-strong sophomore get him in any trouble.

Lee finished off a shot at the end of the first period, marking the first points Suriano had surrendered in this entire tournament.

He finished off Suriano with a takedown and punishing ride in the third. His only lament? Letting him up for a late escape. It was only the fourth match point Lee allowed all week, compared to 60 he scored himself.

It was an exclamation point on the end of a 12-month period in which he impressively got better and better.

Getting better from a torn ACL and knee surgery last March that pushed him off the mat for months.

Getting better with his conditioning as he worked up his strength. In his January matches after he pulled the redshirt, he was running out of gas at times in the third period.

Getting better in every phase of wrestling. After not scoring a takedown against Tomasello in two meetings, he scored three Friday night before hammering home the pin.

Then against Suriano, he was strong and impenetrable for seven full minutes.

Afterward, Lee said the hardest part of the 12 months between surgery and a national title was “originally just coming back in practice. And I'm not saying I lost my feel, but not being able to use your knee for quite a while, it was a little different getting back on the mat.”

He just got the protective knee brace off this week.

So ... we all may be just seeing the start of what Lee can do when fully unleashed.

“He’s just workmanlike. He’s been raised right. He trains right," Terry Brands said. "He understands the fundamentals of the sport of wrestling, and the way to get better."