PITTSBURGH (AP) — With swollen foreheads and bloody lips, 20 of the NCAA's toughest athletes huffed and puffed Friday night as they tried to describe their journey through March's other grueling tournament.
"I worked my whole life since I was 4 years old starting to wrestle for an opportunity to be on this stage in the national tournament," Rutgers 149-pounder Anthony Ashnault said. "And now it's here."
The Rutgers star is one of eight wrestlers who'll have the opportunity to end his career with a title when the NCAA championships conclude Saturday night.
Fellow seniors Jason Nolf (157 pounds), Bo Nickal (197) and Anthony Cassar (285) of Penn State, Ohio State's Joey McKenna (141) and Micah Jordan (149), Northern Iowa's Drew Foster (184) and Oklahoma State's Derek White (285) will end their careers with title shots.
They'll be joined by Iowa's Spencer Lee (125), Cornell's Yianni Diakomihalis (141), Penn State's Vincenzo Joseph (165) and Arizona State's Zahid Valencia (174), who are all defending champions in their respective weight classes.
Mark Hall won at 174 pounds two seasons ago but fell to Valencia last season in the finals. He'll meet Valencia in the finals again for the Nittany Lions, who all but clinched their eighth team championships in nine years.
Penn State led Ohio State 120-88 1/2 after the semifinal round.
The Nittany Lions built their lead with bonus points as they have in each of their championship runs.
While Nolf survived a 3-2 match against NC State's Hayden Hidlay in the semis, Nickal needed just 4:41 to cradle Princeton's Patrick Brucki for his third pin of the tournament. Combined, the pair of two-time champions notched seven bonus-point wins over the first two days.
"There are so many people that have put energy and time and effort into me," Nickal said. "My coaches at Penn State and my parents have lugged me around the country since I was really little and I feel incredibly grateful for the people in my life and the things that wrestling has allowed me to do and the places it's taken me."
Nolf will face Nebraska's Tyler Berger, and Nickal will square off with Ohio State's Kollin Moore in the finals.
Joseph, who edged Arizona State's Josh Shields in the semis, will also try for his third championship. He'll wrestle Virginia Tech freshman Mekhi Lewis, who bounced No. 1 seed Alex Marinelli of Iowa earlier on Friday.
Lee will face Virginia's Jack Mueller for the 125-pound title after Lee pulled away from Oklahoma State's Nick Piccininni in the semis. Mueller dominated top-seeded Sebastian Rivera of Northwestern 8-2 with 5:26 in riding time to make it to his first title bout.
Oklahoma State's Daton Fix and Rutgers' Nick Suriano will meet in the 133-pound final after Fix edged Ohio State's Luke Pletcher 4-2 and Suriano outmuscled Michigan's Stevan Micic 4-1 in the semis.
At 141, McKenna edged Penn State's Nick Lee 4-3 with the winning point coming from his 1:29 riding time advantage. Diakomihalis held on against Missouri's Jaydin Eierman for a 6-5 win in the other semifinal.
"It's been a long time coming," McKenna said. "I knew it was going to be a tough match. I knew I would be breathing hard like this."
Ashnault is trying to become Rutgers' first NCAA champion.
He'll have to go through Jordan in a matchup of grizzled veterans after he outlasted longtime rival Matthew Kolodzik of Princeton 2-0. Jordan beat North Carolina's Austin O'Connor 7-4 in the semis.
The two have combined for five All-America seasons but neither had made the finals before.
Foster's first title bout will come against Cornell's Max Dean. Foster beat North Carolina's Chip Ness 7-4 who had made it to the semis as the No. 15 seed at 184 pounds. Dean knocked off former 174-pound champion Myles Martin of Ohio State 5-4.
White is also making his first finals appearance for the Cowboys. He'll face Cassar who beat Minnesota's Gable Steveson in overtime 4-3 in a rematch of the Big Ten championship.