Publish date:

Penn Ultimate Scoonie Penn of Ohio State made the big plays--including a crucial block--as the surging Buckeyes beat Michigan State and St. John's


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

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

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.

Wherever this team ends up, it will only get as far as Penn takes
it. From where O'Brien sits, that leaves things in pretty good

COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPH BY MANNY MILLAN HANDS ON After hitting two foul shots to put Ohio State ahead, Penn iced the win by rejecting Barkley's shot.