One season after finishing last in the Big Ten, Ohio State is headed to the Final Four.
Guards Scoonie Penn and Michael Redd combined for 42 points and 13 assists as Ohio State beat St. John's 77-74 Saturday for the NCAA South Regional championship, sending the Buckeyes to their first Final Four since 1968.
"It's just really, really hard to put into words the feeling shared by all of us," said second-year Ohio State coach Jim O'Brien. "It is hard to imagine that we have put ourselves in this position. This is as good as it gets for the time being."
Penn, who didn't play on last year's 8-22 team, had 22 points and eight assists against St. John's and was selected MVP of the South. Redd added 20 points and five assists for the Buckeyes.
"It's been a tremendous season," said Penn, who scored 26 points in Ohio State's win over top-seeded Auburn in the regional semifinals. "You can take away the MVP and I wouldn't care. When I receive an individual award, it goes to every guy on the team."
| Jim O'Brien gets Ohio State into the Final Four for the first time in 31 years. (AP)|
Penn was the only new starter this season for Ohio State (27-8), having followed O'Brien from Boston College to Columbus. He sat out last year because of transfer rules after he and the coach had participated in the NCAA Tournament together in 1996 and 1997.
Ohio State never trailed, but had to hold on as St. John's -- in its first regional final since 191 -- got within a point in the final minute. The Red Storm (28-9) were down 76-74 with under 10 seconds left when Erick Barkley lost control of the ball and committed his only turnover in 37 minutes of action.
"I lost the ball," said Barkley, slumped over in a chair in the dressing room, his right hand covering his eyes.
"We wouldn't have had a chance to be in the game, much less have a chance to win without Barkley," said first-year St. John's coach Mike Jarvis. "Hopefully, he will wake up tomorrow and understand."
Redd grabbed the loose ball and dribbled to the other end of the court. Fouled just before the buzzer, he ended the scoring with a free throw with .7 of a second remaining.
Both Ohio State and St. John's blew scoring chances in the closing 90 seconds.
St. John's, which trailed by as many as 13 points earlier, was down just 73-67 with 1:24 left when Boban Savovic traveled in the backcourt. But the Red Storm were unable to capitalize when Reggie Jessie traveled.
No one scored again until Ron Artest's driving one-handed shot with 48.5 seconds left. Penn hit two free throws at the other end to extend the lead back to six.
Ohio State then failed to put the game away when Redd and Brian Brown both missed the front-end of a bonus.
The Buckeyes had a 75-71 lead when Redd missed short, and Artest drove for a layup at the other end. Brown missed with 19.2 seconds left, and Chudney Gray hit the first of two free throws to make it 75-74 seven seconds later.
"St. John's refused to just go away nicely and made a furious comeback," O'Brien said. "I thought we played basically well for 38 minutes, and were happy to be able to hold on."
Penn made the second of his free throws and then was on Barkley when the St. John's freshman made his huge mistake.
"I'm not even sure what happened," Penn admitted. "I know the ball was bouncing freely and got into Michael's hands."
Ohio State shot 54 percent from the field and won despite getting outrebounded 45-28.
Lavor Postell scored 24 points, including four 3-pointers, and grabbed nine rebounds for St. John's. Bootsy Thornton had 18 points and Barkley 13.
Earlier in the second half, Ohio State twice built 13-point leads, only to have St. John's quickly get back within six points.
Savovic's open 3-pointer, after getting a pass from Redd, put the Buckeyes ahead 61-48 with 9:06 left.
Postell and Artest followed with consecutive 3-pointers for St. John's, which forced four turnovers in less than four minutes. Ohio State had just four total before that.
Ken Johnson, Ohio State's 6-foot-11 center who finished with 12 points, scored inside on consecutive possessions to put the Buckeyes up 53-40 with just under 14 minutes left.
The Red Storm responded with seven straight points, including a layup and a 3-pointer by Postell in a 37-second span. >
After scoring nine points in the first seven minutes of the game, including a three-point and four-point play, Penn was held scoreless the rest of the half. But his backcourt partner picked up the slack.
Redd, who hadn't scored since a dunk for the game's first score, had 15 points in the final 11:46. That included a 3-pointer from the top of the key at the buzzer to give Ohio State a 41-33 halftime lead.
Ohio State never trailed after scoring the game's first five points, on the Redd dunk and Penn's three-point play, as St. John's missed its first seven shots.
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