Monday, March 22, 1999

Buckeyes savor incomprehensible trip to Final Four

AP Sports Writer

        COLUMBUS, Ohio — The season started with Scoonie Penn's wildest dream. Now it's gone way, way beyond that.

        Ohio State is headed to the Final Four for the first time in 31 years and is coming out of nowhere to do it.

        Just one year ago, the Buckeyes were 8-22 overall, tying the school record for losses in a season, and 1-15 and last in the Big Ten. They won exactly one game in January, February and March last year, losing a record 17 straight games at one point.

        So when Penn — the transfer point guard from Boston College — predicted in the preseason that Ohio State would make it to the NCAA tournament, most people laughed at his youthful naivete.

        “We knew we would turn it around, but not in my wildest dreams did I think we would make it to the Final Four this year,” Penn said while being mobbed upon the team's arrival in Columbus early Sunday morning.

        The Buckeyes will meet Connecticut on Saturday night in the national semifinals. Ohio State coach Jim O'Brien hasn't beaten UConn in 18 meetings. But then again, based on what's happened so far, no one's doubting there may be more magic left in the bottle.

        Ohio State advances after a 77-74 upset of St. John's in the South Regional championship game Saturday night in Knoxville, Tenn. It was just the latest in a series of seismic victories that have left even hard-core fans in shock.

        Hundreds came out to cheer the team when it arrived on campus Sunday morning.

        One fan put the accomplishment in perspective in this football-mad city: “This is almost better than a football win over Michigan. Almost.”

        Truth be told, the basketball team had all but been forgotten for the past five losing seasons.

        Since last making it to the NCAA tournament in 1992, the Buckeyes fell into ruin under coach Randy Ayers. The only time anyone said “NCAA” was when the program was put on probation for recruiting violations. The number of players kicked off the team or transferring reached double figures. And the losses continued to mount.

        Ayers was fired in the wake of back-to-back 10-17 seasons and O'Brien, then at Boston College, was hired after several well-known coaches thumbed their noses at the downtrodden program.

        O'Brien ran off three players, including two starters, six weeks before his first practice with the team. Two others, including the team's best player, eventually were forced out.

        Penn followed O'Brien to Ohio State and, after sitting out last year's nadir, has joined with leading-scorer Michael Redd and an athletic but offensively-challenged group of role players to capture the hearts of the doubters.

        “I thought I was going to be a spectator like everyone else,” O'Brien said of the Final Four. Then he laughed.

        The squirming, giggling, celebrating pile of Buckeyes on the court after the final seconds of the regional final was the other end of the emotional spectrum from the misery of the 1997-98 season.

        “It's awesome. It really is awesome,” Redd said. “To suffer the way we did last year and now to be on top where we are right now. It can't get any better.”

        Allegra Penn traveled from her hometown of Salem, Mass., to watch her son's dream come true. Looking out over the jubilation she said, “I told him a week ago we were going to Florida — that we would play St. John's and beat them. I always taught him to think positive.”

        Her son has passed that lesson on.


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