What a difference a year makes at Ohio State
Posted: Sunday March 21, 1999 05:09 PM
COLUMBUS, Ohio (AP) -- The season started with Scoonie Penn's wildest dream. Now it's gone way, way beyond that.
Ohio State is headed for 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, tying the school record for losses in a season, and 1-15 and last in the Big Ten. They lost a record 17 straight games at one point.
So when Penn, the transfer point guard from Boston College, predicted before the season that Ohio State would make it to the NCAA Tournament, most people laughed at his 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.
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. Then again, based on what's happened so far, no one's doubting there may be more magic left in the bottle.
Ohio State advanced after a 77-74 victory over St. John's in the South Regional final Saturday night in Knoxville, Tenn. -- the latest seismic shock produced by the Buckeyes.
"Do you believe in miracles?" The Columbus Dispatch wrote in its game story. "If you still don't, you haven't been paying attention."
Hundreds cheered the team when it arrived on campus Sunday morning. Hours earlier, a professional ice skating show at the team's home court, Value City Arena, was repeatedly disrupted by fans groaning and cheering. They listened on radios or watched on portable TVs as the Buckeyes held off St. John's in the final frantic seconds.
"This is almost better than a football win over Michigan," one fan is this football-mad city said.
The basketball team had been all but forgotten the past five losing seasons.
Since last making it to the NCAAs 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 mounted.
Ayers was fired following back-to-back 10-17 seasons. O'Brien was hired after several prominent coaches spurned offers from downtrodden Ohio State.
O'Brien ran off three players, including two starters, six weeks before his first practice. Two others, including the team's best player, eventually were forced out.
Penn followed O'Brien to Ohio State from Boston College. After sitting out last year, he has joined with leading-scorer Michael Redd and a 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 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. She looked at all the jubilation around her.
"I told him a week ago we were going to Florida -- that we would play St. John's and beat them," she said. "I always taught him to think positive."Her son has passed that lesson on.
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