Connor Flynn stood on his home mat with a 2-0 lead and 30 seconds to go in his bout against Joey Gunter.
If Flynn had held on for a decision, Missouri would have gone out to a commanding 14-9 lead, but Gunter had other ideas.
Gunter stunned the crowd at Francis Howell High School with a takedown to tie the match at two with 25 seconds left.
Flynn, a senior from Francis Howell, still had a chance to wiggle out a victory with an escape, but Gunter was able to hold on. Flynn pulled, but couldn’t break himself from Gunter’s grasp.
That took the match to a sudden death round, where No. 8 Flynn and No. 18 Gunter battled before Gunter spoiled Flynn’s homecoming and got a key takedown.
That takedown gave Illinois a 12-11 lead that they wouldn’t relinquish.
Missouri got within striking distance in the Heavyweight bout, but a 9-7 decision by Luke Luffman finished off a 19-14 victory for Illinois (2-1) over No. 12 Missouri (0-2) on Thursday.
The day started fast for the Illini with a Justin Cardani decision (4-0) over Dack Punke and a 4-3 decision by No. 9 Travis Piotrowski over No. 25 Allan Hart, giving Illinois a 6-0 lead.
Illinois’ momentum was cut short when they encountered the buzz-saw of Missouri’s middle weight trio of Grant Leeth, Brock Mauller and Jarrett Jacques.
Major decisions by Leeth and Mauller in the 141 and 149-pound divisions gave Missouri a 8-6 lead, while a seven-point third period propelled No. 14 Jacques to a 7-2 decision over No. 16 Eric Barone in the 157-pound division to extend Missouri’s lead to five.
No. 5 Leeth made his season debut after a shoulder injury cut short his redshirt sophomore campaign and entered a new weight class of 141 pounds. Leeth was at 149 pounds the last two years.
The Illini tried everything to mitigate the Tigers’ points in those three bouts, with Leeth’s opponent, Wes Rachel, turning into a sprinter by running away from Leeth during their bout.
“I had to chase him down,” Leeth said. “The tough thing is keeping your composure and sticking to what you do best. The first period I did an okay job at it and when he was running I just stayed low and got down to my shots. After that I got super frustrated.”
Rachel’s multiple warnings for stalling gave Leeth a major decision, but the strategy kept Missouri’s returning All-Americans from doing too much damage with any falls or technical falls.
“That 1-2-3 punch are kind of our bonus point guys,” Leeth said. “That’s another reason you’ve got to stay composed, because if you are frustrated that you’re not getting those bonus points, you’re less likely to get them.”
No. 2 Mauller was in a similar predicament fighting Mousa Jodeh, who was content with a close decision, until three takedowns from Mauller in the final minutes secured a 12-3 major decision.
“Guys aren’t going to wrestle us,” Leeth said. “I think throughout the season, we’ll figure out how to combat that and really start putting up points and change the mentality from ‘oh I gotta get bonus points’ to ‘okay, I gotta stick to my game plan.’”
That strategy kept Illinois in striking distance at the intermission with an 11-6 deficit, and the Illini took full advantage in the second half. A 11-5 decision out of the break by Illinois’ No. 23 Danny Braunagel over Peyton Mocco pulled the Illini within two before Flynn’s pivotal homecoming bout.
After a stalemate in the first period, Flynn escaped 10 seconds into the second period to go up 1-0. A stalling warning on Gunter in final minute of period gave Flynn a 2-0 lead, but Gunter took control from there for a 4-2 overtime decision.
“It’s frustrating because he had a good game plan going in. He just kind of lost it a little at the end of the match and you can’t do that,” Missouri coach Brian Smith said. “(Flynn’s) a quality kid and you’ve got to put the match away.”
Flynn was on the offensive and was able to grab Gunter’s legs like a lot of Missouri wrestlers, but the Tigers couldn’t always finish the job for takedowns.
“You’ve got to make the most of it when you get to a leg, and they made the most of it,” Smith said. “They didn’t take as many shots as us but when they got to the leg they finished. They made the most of their shots, we didn’t.”
After Flynn’s loss, Canten Marriott fell by major decision to No. 18 Zac Braunagel and the Illinois lead was 16-11 with two bouts to go.
No. 20 Wyatt Koelling kept Missouri’s hopes alive with a late takedown to secure a decision that pulled the Tigers within two, setting up a winner-take-all heavyweight bout between Missouri’s Rodrigo Diaz and an undefeated Luke Luffman for Illinois.
Diaz got out fast with a takedown in the first minute, but a couple late takedowns by Luffman secured a 9-7 decision that shut the door on the Tigers and handed them their second-straight dual defeat for the first time since 2011.
“He went out to win the match,” Smith said. “He was a kid that in the beginning of the season was our fourth string heavyweight and goes out and battles hard like that. I’m actually most proud him and the way he wrestled … did he make a few mistakes there where it cost him? Probably. But I was really pleased with his effort.”
Missouri returns to Columbia and looks to get back on track against Missouri Valley College and Central Missouri at 6:30 p.m. Thursday at Hearnes Center.