It was the beginning of March Madness — the Michigan men’s basketball team just fell to Ohio in the NCAA Tournament, and everyone donned Irish-green apparel in the spirit of St. Patrick’s Day.

Meanwhile, in St. Louis, Kellen Russell was wrestling in his last moments of glory.

On Saturday, the fifth-year senior stepped onto the mat for the last time in a maize and blue singlet. When he walked off, he was a two-time national champion.

Russell’s journey was long and physical. He spent countless hours training for a single moment. But in the last weeks of his college-wrestling career, Russell made history, sought revenge and passed on a tradition.

Russell is an irreplaceable puzzle piece. Without him, the Michigan wrestling team would not have been able to complete its 11th-place finish at the NCAA Championships this weekend.

But with him, the Wolverines built upon their legacy and added Russell’s name to the short list of Michigan’s multiple-time champions.

Just after Russell’s final victory, ESPN played a video about the challenges that wrestlers encounter.

“You make yourself very vulnerable,” said Oscar winner and former wrestler John Irving. “If you’re tired, everybody knows. If you’re not as strong or as fast as your opponent, everybody sees it. If you quit, everybody sees it.”

But Russell didn’t make himself vulnerable, nor did he let anyone witness signs of weakness or exhaustion. Of the 18,919 in attendance, not one would say they saw him quit — Russell fought until the referee raised his arm in victory.

“Most of these wrestlers today are expected to just tell themselves, ‘This is just like every other match,’ ” said Anthony Robles before the finals on Saturday.

Robles, who earned last year’s 125-pound national title, despite being born with only one leg, continued, “but really, it’s not like every other match.”

“This is what they train for year round, what they dream about. So it’s all about who can come out tonight, perform under the lights for one more match.”

But it wasn’t just Russell’s last match that mattered.

After three early wins, Russell squared off against Ohio State’s Hunter Stieber in the semifinals. The Buckeye was Russell’s only loss in 72 matches over the last two seasons.

Russell reflected on that match more than once. He knew his focus wasn’t there. But this time, it was.

Stieber struck first after scrambling to keep a hold on Russell’s left leg. But in the second period, Russell started in the down position and scored an early escape. That’s when he started to open up and rally a 5-2 win. With a lead, he drove Stieber’s head into the mat, riding him out to advance to the finals, where he would face Iowa’s Montell Marion.

In a press conference before the 141-pound final, someone asked Russell’s opponent a telling question.

“Montell, you’ve got one more match tomorrow night. Does it feel like it could be a fairy-tale ending for your career if you were ever able to bring it home?”

But there are no fairy tales in wrestling.

Russell had a 3-0 record against Marion, so he was confident before the match. But it didn’t turn out exactly the way he planned. Though Russell posted the first takedown, Marion retaliated and kept the score close.

Russell aggressively drove Marion into the mat while the Hawkeye tried to earn an escape. But Marion tied it up in the middle of the second period. And after trading escapes, at the sound of the whistle, Russell was a single second away from a win off of riding time.

But 59 seconds was not enough, and Marion took Russell into sudden victory.

“He kind of caught me sleeping a little bit when he got that takedown,” Russell said. “Going into overtime, I knew I had the upper hand.”

Again, Russell came out on top. He took control and brought Marion down to the mat with 23 seconds left on the clock.

Though his first national title was an accomplishment in and of itself, his second-consecutive crown was just icing on the cake.

Russell’s last match as a Wolverine finalized his career record at 134-12 to share the eighth place on Michigan’s all-time winningest wrestlers list with Joe Pantaleo (1985-89), Airron Richardson (1995-98) and Greg Wagner (2002-06).

After the championships ended, the Scottrade Center emptied and the wrestlers parted ways. But Russell left a two-time national champion.

“I love watching him wrestle,” said redshirt sophomore Eric Grajales. “It sometimes feels like he’s planned out the entire match beforehand.”

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