Much was made of the glaring lack of NCAA Tournament experience the Ohio State men's basketball team took into March Madness. With every game growing in importance, certainly the Buckeyes would wilt under the pressure, the experts said.
Instead, with the ultimate NCAA party – the Final Four – on the line, the Buckeyes looked like the more veteran and calm outfit in taking command of St. John's in the South Regional final in Knoxville, Tenn., on March 20.
Then came the gut-wrenching final minute and a half.
Allowing a late nine-point lead to dip all the way to a single point, the fourth-seeded Buckeyes hung on for an epic 77-74 win over the third-seeded Red Storm before an Ohio State-partisan crowd of 24,248 in Thompson-Boling Arena.
In the wild scene that followed, players, coaches and their family members embraced and danced on the court, many weeping openly.
"It's hard to imagine we're going to this thing," OSU head coach Jim O'Brien told reporters on the court. "It's such a nice feeling, but I don't know if it's going to sink in. I'm just emotionally spent right now."
In just his second year at the helm and one year after a dreadful 8-22 campaign, O'Brien led the Buckeyes (27-8) to the Final Four for the first time since 1968.
The Buckeyes advanced to play first-time semifinalist Connecticut in a March 27 game with a scheduled tip-off of 5:42 Eastern at Tropicana Field in St. Petersburg, Fla. The Huskies earned the top seed in the West region and slipped by surprising Gonzaga to continue their postseason trek. The other semifinal will pit two other top-seeded powers as Duke takes on Michigan State at approximately 8 p.m.
St. John's (28-9) played as well as any team to miss out. The Johnnies dusted off Samford, Indiana and Maryland to reach the Elite Eight and nearly pulled off a comeback against Ohio State.
It began as Bootsy Thornton ended a frantic exchange with a three-point play. The lefty guard scored a rare goal over OSU center Ken Johnson, drew a foul and sank the free throw to trim the lead to 73-67.
OSU still seemed to be in control after a Boban Savovic travel since the Red Storm's Reggie Jessie returned the favor with a walking violation with 1:20 to play. But another OSU frosh, Brian Brown, turned the ball over trying to drive down the lane, and SJU took advantage when Ron Artest tallied at the other end.
"We were hanging on and I thought played very well until the last couple of minutes," O'Brien said. "But we're playing young kids, and this is to get to the Final Four. To think that's not going to affect people is crazy.
"They had so many fouls to five and we knew that they were going to play aggressive and try to get away with all the bumps and all the bangs and get some steal opportunities. All we just kept telling our guys is, ‘They're going to foul you. You need to be good with the ball.'"
OSU managed to inbound the ball to Penn, who opened the OSU lead back to six at 75-69 with two free throws with just 44.4 seconds left. But the Buckeyes later missed two consecutive front ends of one-and-ones at the line and SJU countered with another strong Artest scoring drive down the lane and a drive by Chudney Gray with drew a foul on OSU's George Reeese with 12.2 seconds on the clock.
With a chance to tie the score, Gray missed the first free throw and made the second, but OSU wasn't home just yet. Penn split his pair of free throws and St. John's point guard Erick Barkley steamed up the court with SJU trailing just 76-74. As Penn hustled back to catch up to him, Barkley lost the ball off his knee and OSU's Michael Redd scooped it up, raced down the sideline and drew a foul with 0.7 of a second to play.
St. John's screamed for a foul on Penn, but Barkley and SJU coach Mike Jarvis dispelled any possible controversy, saying Barkley simply lost the ball off his knee trying to make a play.
"Barkley will want to blame himself, but I won't let him," Jarvis said. "This wasn't a bad start to his career, making it this far as a freshman."
Redd, who had missed at the line moments earlier, hit the first for a three-point lead and Barkley could only fling the missed second shot the length of the floor in a desperation heave.
It was wide, and the Buckeyes, last-place finishers in the Big Ten a season ago, had earned the right to cut down the nets and begin making plans for the Final Four.
"It means a lot to help get this program where it hasn't been in a long time," said Penn, who finished with 22 points, eight rebounds, eight assists and was named the most outstanding player of the South region. "I'm happy for the people of Ohio and at Ohio State University for getting a chance to experience this along with us."
Approximately 15,000 OSU fans headed south for a chance to see history, and a majority of them hung around long after the Buckeyes provided it.
"It really helped us, but I wasn't too surprised to see all of them," said Redd, who strongly supported Penn with 20 points, six rebounds and five assists. "They followed us to Indianapolis, and it was a great showing again tonight."
O'Brien, who hugged his assistants and even danced with his players after the win, was just grateful the clock finally ran out with OSU still on top.
"I thought we were on R the last two minutes, but I think that's a credit to St. John's," said the Big Ten coach of the year. "St. John's refused to just go away quietly. They really turned up the heat, and I thought we got a little scattery.
"We missed a few free throws, had some turnovers, but St. John's is not one of the best teams in the country for nothing."
Jarvis took the loss in stride despite his team's near-comeback.
"There just happened to be a couple of players named Redd and Penn that were determined to keep the momentum on the side of Ohio State," he said, actually managing a smile. "Great players make big plays when they have to. I'll be seeing those two guys a lot in my sleep the next couple of weeks.
"I'll have to try to recruit a couple of guys to stop them next year is all."
But Shingleton and Johnson both provided other scoring options with 13 and 12 points, respectively. Johnson also added seven blocks, two of them on the game's first possession, and altered several more shots as St. John's was held to 39.4 percent from the field.
"I wanted to go out there and be a presence," said the 6-11 Johnson, who hit 6 of 9 field goal attempts against the smaller Johnnies. "I knew I had to step it up and be a factor today. I have the ability to do that. It was just a matter of me getting a lot of touches. I was just hungry today."
During the regular season, O'Brien often referred to Johnson as a "man" following a big game. But with the Final Four on the line, he said, "Ken was that and more. I thought they couldn't guard him in spots around the basket because he's so much bigger and his defensive ability in blocking shots and altering a lot, he came up big again."
Added Jarvis, "Mr. Johnson was the difference. He set the tone of the game on the first possession. He is a great shot blocker, and when you have somebody like that, you have to take the ball at them. We didn't do that.
"He contributed 12 points on offense. They don't win the game without him."
Artest was held to just nine points, but fellow forward Lavor Postell led all scorers with 24 points. He hit four threes and helped St. John's to a 45-28 advantage on the backboards with nine caroms. Thornton finished with 18 points and Barkley tallied 13 points, seven assists and just one turnover, albeit a big one.
St. John's played from behind all night thanks to an impressive 9-2 OSU start that consisted of a breakaway Redd dunk off a Penn feed and three- and four-point plays by Penn. After Barkley canned a trey, OSU's front line got involved as Johnson threw down an alley-oop pass from Singleton.
"I think it was important to get out to not so much a big lead, but just show that we were going to be able to play with these guys and have our kids feel very confident about ourselves," O'Brien said. "And the way the game started out, we felt we were going to score some points against them."
OSU led 41-33 at halftime after Redd splashed a three-pointer from the top of the key with 0.5 of a second left. The sophomore lefty finished the half with three treys and 17 points.
OSU held leads as high as 13 points on three different occasions in the second half before SJU's late rally.
The Buckeyes managed to hit 29 of 53 shots (54.7 percent) despite the Red Storm's much-publicized zone defense.
"I felt we were going to be able to play against their zone and that it would just come down to making some shots," O'Brien said.
But in the end, OSU's task was to handle the ball and hang on for dear life.
Mission accomplished, the Buckeyes will head to the Tampa/St. Pete area. Ironically for Reese, South Florida, where he played as a freshman, will serve as the NCAA host school.
"I remember looking up at a sign my freshman year that said, ‘Final Four Coming in 1999,' and I remember thinking, ‘Man, if I could only go there.' Now I'm going there," he said.
OSU improved to 5-2 all-time against SJU, avenging season-ending losses in the 1989 NIT and an NCAA regional semifinal loss in 1991.