Friday, March 19, 1999

The Scoonie and O'Brien Show

The Cincinnati Enquirer

        KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — “Scoonie and O'Brien” sounds like a very good name for another very bad network TV show. Two outsiders come to a large Midwestern university's lately lame basketball program, vowing to turn it around. ...

        They have. Scoonie Penn, the transfer point guard, and Jim O'Brien, the coach he followed from Boston College, are taking Ohio State to the title game of the South Regional, a year after the Buckeyes finished 8-22.

        I don't know what's more amazing: Is it going from 8-22 to one win from the Final Four? Or is it a 5-foot-10 player dominating a basketball game?

Size didn't matter
        Penn did everything a 5-10 guard could do. His biggest crime was not being half a foot taller. Size should have done in the Buckeyes Thursday night, against an Auburn team whose biggest strength was its ... strength. And it almost did.

        Ohio State led Auburn 44-41 when Penn picked up his fourth foul, with 13:23 left. After that, Auburn's Daymeon Fishback drilled a three from the top of the circle. On their next possession, the Tigers got one shot, two, then three, just swarming the offensive boards, before Doc Robinson floated a soft jumper in the lane to make it 52-46 Tigers, with 10:14 to play. O'Brien put Penn back in the game then, with four fouls. He had no choice.

        Penn immediately hit a three, then a running one-hander to cut Auburn's lead to one.

        Auburn's Chris Porter nearly matched Penn. He was everywhere, rumbling in the lane, making an off-balance jumper on the baseline, setting picks at the top of the key. He matched Penn bump for jump.

        In the last minute of the first half, Porter nailed Ohio State's George Reese with an elbow to the chops. Seconds later, OSU's John Sanderson returned the favor, to Auburn's Jay Heard, and right then you figured the first half was just a tease for what was coming next.

        Penn wasn't done. He nailed a 17-footer from the right baseline to put OSU up 57-56. He hit two free throws: 59-58. He made a seeing-eye pass to a backdoor-cutting Michael Redd with 3:15 left: 61-58. After Auburn's Scott Pohlman answered with a three, Redd made a pair of free throws.

        Then, with 1:13 left, Penn swished a short jumper from the right side: 66-61. A steal and a dunk followed that, and what looked like it might have been a grinding Auburn win became Ohio State's biggest triumph since Jimmy Jackson.

        Penn had the ball in his hands at the end. Fair enough. At the buzzer, Penn took the ball and launched it straight up. No one would have been shocked had it gone through the hoop. He finished with 26 points.

And now, the Johnnies
        Ohio State will play St.John's on Saturday for a trip to the Final Four. St.John's slapped a 2-3 zone on Maryland midway through the first half of the first game here. The Terrapins (great nickname for a fast-break team, by the way) responded the way lots of college teams respond to zones: like they'd never seen one.

        At least they had two marquee matchups here. Seeding held form, which begs this conclusion:

        Upsets are great. They'd be even better if, after the underdogs won, they went home.

        It would have been good, for example, if Southwest Missouri State had called it a year after beating Tennessee last week. Is anybody else thinking Oklahoma, a 13 seed, would be loved forever if it made the truly gracious gesture of packing up now?

        Come on back, Arizona. All is forgiven.

        Quickly: Gonzaga and Florida? Or North Carolina and Stanford? Take away top-seeded Connecticut, and the West Regional is pretty much the preseason NIT.

        Woe be the East, where if Duke sending Southwest Missouri back to the Stone Age doesn't wow you, just wait for No.6 Temple and No.10 Purdue.

        Six teams seeded 10th or worse were still alive Thursday afternoon. Ohio State lives, though. Scoonie and O'Brien, back for at least one more episode.

        Enquirer columnist Paul Daugherty welcomes your comments at 768-8454.