Ohio State's season of destiny came down to the final three minutes of its South Regional semifinal game against top-seeded Auburn.
And the Buckeyes, overcoming huge odds, made all of the key plays down the stretch to pull off a 72-64 win over the Tigers before 23,898 on March 18 in Knoxville, Tenn.
"I think the thing that keeps hitting me right between the eyes is the way these guys have constantly come back to try and accomplish a little bit more," said OSU coach Jim O'Brien after his team was the first to knock off a No. 1 seed in this year's tournament.
"They are surprising me a little bit. Just when I ask myself if they are capable of doing more, they surprise me and do even more. Tonight they did it in difficult circumstances."
Three OSU starters – Scoonie Penn, Jason Singleton and Ken Johnson – played most of the second half with four fouls. But none fouled out.
In fact, Penn returned to the game with four fouls with 10:14 left and the Buckeyes trailing 52-46.
"I wasn't going to lose the game with my best player on the bench," O'Brien said.
Penn, hobbled in recent games by an injury suffered in OSU's regular-season finale, broke out of his slump. He hit 9 of 16 shots from the floor – including 4 of 7 on three-pointers – to post a game-high 26 points. Michael Redd added 22 points and 10 rebounds for the Buckeyes.
Penn returned to the game and served notice the Buckeyes would be in it for the long haul, burying a three from the top of the key and then hitting a one-hand runner as he fell out of bounds to trim the lead to 52-51 with 8:48 left.
The game was tied at 61 after Auburn's Scott Pohlman connected on a three-pointer with 3:01 left. But the Buckeyes used their defense to fuel an 11-3 run to close the game and advance to the Elite Eight for just the first time in seven years and just the second time since the tournament field expanded to 64 teams in 1985.
"This was one of those games where whoever had the run at the end of the game was going to win," Penn said. "We played good defense and hit our shots when it counted.
"It came down to a three-minute game because it had basically been even the whole time."
OSU's Brian Brown opened the run by making one of two free throws to give OSU a 62-61 lead with 2:41 left. After Pohlman missed a three at the other end, Redd was fouled by Auburn's Chris Porter while rebounding his own miss.
The foul was costly as Porter, the SEC player of the year, fouled out with a team-high 15 points and 11 rebounds.
Redd made both free throws for a 64-61 lead with 1:57 left. Auburn's Doc Robinson then missed a three at the other end, and Redd rebounded.
Penn then stuck a baseline jumper to push the lead to 66-61 with 1:10 left.
Auburn's Bryant Smith attempted a three-pointer, but Brown converged and blocked the shot from behind. He started out on the fastbreak, dishing behind the back to Singleton, who finished the play – and effectively the Tigers – with a two-hand slam to make it 68-61 with 58.4 seconds left.
"Brian's man (Robinson) brought the ball up and threw it to the man I was guarding," Singleton said. "He tried a three-point shot, but Brown switched over and blocked the shot.
"We had a two-on-one break, and he threw it behind the back to me for the dunk. That was probably the key turning point in the game."
Auburn coach Cliff Ellis, who edged O'Brien for a number of national coach of the year awards, then called a full timeout to try to devise a strategy for the final minute.
But Auburn's Daymeon Fishback missed a shot and Brown rebounded. He was fouled and made one of two free throws to make it 69-61 with 39.9 seconds left. After another Auburn miss, Singleton hit one of two free throws to make it 70-61. Robinson made a three with 6.5 seconds left, but Penn closed the scoring with two free throws with 5.5 seconds left.
"We showed a lot of heart tonight," Redd said. "Nobody had us here, but we came out and did it."
Penn threw the ball in the air at the final buzzer.
"It was just a sigh of relief," he said. "That was just a hard-fought game. This is the biggest victory of my whole life. It felt so good to hear that buzzer."
The teams traded the lead five times in the first half, and neither team led by more than five points. Penn closed the half with a three-pointer from the top of the key with 17 seconds left to give the Buckeyes a 31-26 lead.
"That shot put me over the hump," he said.
The Buckeyes held their halftime lead despite being whistled for 10 fouls to Auburn's two and being outrebounded 23-14 in the first half.
Things appeared to go from bad to worse for OSU when Penn was whistled for a reach-in foul, his fourth, with OSU nursing a 44-41 lead with 13:23 left.
O'Brien went to a 2-3 zone and tried to stretch the game as best he could. But the Tigers went on an 11-2 run, keyed by four points each from Pohlman and Robinson, to seize a 52-46 lead with 10:14 left.
Out of options, O'Brien called a timeout and sent Penn back into the game.
"Scoonie is an intelligent player, and he knew what he had to do," O'Brien said.
Penn said the Buckeyes were primed to pull off the upset.
"We had been in this situation with a tight game a number of times," Penn said. We looked at their statistics and saw they had won 26 of their 29 games by double digits. We knew if we could just keep the game in single digits we would have a chance down the stretch.
"We were able to execute at the end."
Auburn had averaged 19 offensive rebounds a game during the season. But the Buckeyes were successful in keeping the Tigers off the boards, allowing just three offensive rebounds in the second half and locking down the win in the first game ever between the two schools.
"We went into the game knowing Ohio State was a very good team," Ellis said. "Ohio State played excellent defense. Our guys put a lot of heart into this game, but give Ohio State credit.
"They played hard, played well and are well-coached."
Added Porter, "We take pride in our rebounding, but we just couldn't pull them down tonight the way we did all year."
Robinson added 14 points and Smith had 10 for Auburn. Pohlman, a sharp-shooter who scored 27 points in Auburn's previous tournament win over Oklahoma State, finished with just seven points on 2-of-8 shooting.