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The ball in his hands and the game on the line, Ohio State point guard Scoonie Penn instinctively looked over to where his coach, Jim O'Brien, was sitting on the Buckeyes' bench. The situation fairly screamed for a timeout. Ohio State trailed St. John's 64-63 last Saturday and had just taken possession with 34.2 seconds to play. O'Brien made eye contact with Penn but didn't make a move. He didn't even stand up. His stare said, You know what to do. "A lot of guys say they want to be in that situation, but they really don't," Penn says. "Coach knows I want to be there."
The last time O'Brien and Penn had been together in Madison Square Garden was March 1997, when they won the Big East tournament championship for Boston College. Penn, who was a sophomore then, was named the tournament MVP. A few weeks later, however, O'Brien left BC after a bitter split with the admissions office over some of his recruits, and Penn soon followed him to Ohio State, even though it meant sitting out a year under NCAA transfer rules.
Having received no indication that O'Brien wanted a timeout on Saturday, Penn took his time dribbling past half-court and then accelerated toward the lane, drawing a foul on Red Storm guard Bootsy Thornton. He calmly sank two free throws with 23.9 seconds on the clock to give the Buckeyes their first lead of the second half. St. John's called timeout, and on the ensuing possession Penn—all 5'10" of him—cleanly blocked 6'1" Erick Barkley's three-point attempt at the buzzer to seal the win. "It was risky to go for that block," Penn conceded afterward. "But, hey, I'm a risktaker."
Red Storm coach Mike Jarvis put it more aptly when he passed O'Brien on his way to the postgame interview room. "Scoonie's a bitch," Jarvis said with a wry smile. "I knew he should have stayed in Boston."
The sequence capped a remarkable 48 hours during which Ohio State served notice that it has the talent—not to mention the guts—to reprise last year's improbable Final Four run. Last Thursday night in Columbus, the Buckeyes snapped Michigan State's 21-game Big Ten winning streak with a 78-67 victory. The next day their flight to New York was delayed for three hours, and they didn't arrive in the Big Apple until 10 p.m., so they looked predictably somnambulant during the first 37 minutes of the next afternoon's game. They trailed St. John's by six points at intermission and by 10 with 2:49 to play before they rallied. "We haven't played our best game yet," O'Brien says, "but we're definitely getting better."
Indeed, Ohio State (13-3 overall, 4-1 in the Big Ten) has improved on several fronts after a spotty start that included a season-opening home loss to Notre Dame and an 80-67 pasting at Kansas in December. Though 6'11" senior Ken Johnson still isn't much of an offensive threat, he has developed into a first-rate shot blocker. He had 11 swats against the Red Storm, and his 5.38 average through Sunday was leading the nation. George Reese, a 6'7" senior forward, is flourishing in his sixth-man role. After averaging only 5.5 points per game last season, Reese is currently third among the Buckeyes in scoring, with an 11.3 average, and had a team-high 19 points in the victory over the Spartans, which gave the Buckeyes a share of first place in the conference. Perhaps the most encouraging sign for Ohio State is that it's winning even though Penn and 6'5" junior guard Michael Redd are in shooting slumps. The two have combined to make just 32.5% of their three-point attempts.
Penn, who on Saturday had 13 of his 16 points and all four of his assists in the second half, is one of those rare players who can dominate a game even when he's not playing well. (Though he hasn't performed poorly enough to justify his omission from the midseason list of 30 candidates for the year-end Wooden Award, given annually to the nation's best player. Either an outbreak of brain lock has spread through the award's nominating committee, or it has been infiltrated by Michigan alumni.)
Penn's personality is likewise dominant, so much so that O'Brien has had to caution him about taking the old coach-on-the-floor thing too far. "Sometimes his diplomacy is a problem," O'Brien says. "I've had to remind him to stay connected to the guys." During one early-season practice Penn was riding Johnson so hard for being soft on defense that when Johnson finally blocked two of Penn's shots, O'Brien yelled, "Now, Kenny, go over there and give him some crap!"
Penn says his leadership instincts stem from his upbringing, in Salem, Mass. His mother, Allegra, raised Scoonie and his three siblings on her own, and because she worked full time as a materials handler for General Electric, she wasn't always around to see to everyday household chores. "I had to do a lot of things for myself," Scoonie says. "That makes you grow up quick." For her part, Allegra proffers an additional explanation for why her son is so tough on his teammates: "Scoonie hates to lose. When he was little, we used to play the board game Sorry. We'd gang up on him, send his little man back, and he'd cry. One day he flipped the table over, he was so mad."
The Buckeyes did plenty of losing during the year Penn sat out, finishing 8-22 overall and 1-15 in the Big Ten. Little wonder Penn was greeted by snickers during the league's preseason media day in the fall of 1998 when he boldly predicted that Ohio State would return to the NCAA tournament. He had the last laugh, of course, sharing conference co-player of the year honors with Michigan State's Mateen Cleaves and leading the Buckeyes to their first Final Four in 31 years. Ohio State possesses the potential to do just as well—or even better—this season, but as O'Brien has been patiently repeating, that doesn't mean it will. "You don't just automatically end up where that team was," he says.