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A Penney for their shots

Lone UW senior hopes to finish with a Big Ten title

Last Updated: March 4, 2003

Madison - When Kirk Penney arrived from New Zealand almost four years ago, his world was turned upside down.

Snow fell during what he knew as summer. The rainy season of his homeland was mostly dry. The 19-hour time change meant his morning classes occurred when his body was used to sleeping.

Penney didn't just pack up and go to college when he left Auckland for the University of Wisconsin, he left family and friends and for a truly new way of life.

Wednesday, fans will thank him for making the journey.

Penney, the lone senior on the Badgers men's basketball team, will be honored before the game against Illinois at 8 p.m. Wednesday. The 6-foot-5 guard could be in for a long ovation.

"I don't know how I'm going to feel," he said. "I don't know what is going to happen. I'm just going to have to make sure I keep my focus."

Penney couldn't ask for better circumstances surrounding his final home game. With a victory over the second-place Illini, Wisconsin will win its second consecutive Big Ten regular-season title.

Penney's four years as a Badger have coincided with the program's greatest moments in the last 50 years. As a freshman, he came off the bench and averaged 3.7 points and 12.7 minutes per game on Wisconsin's Final Four team. As a sophomore, he became a starter and averaged 11.2 points per game for a team that reached the NCAA tournament.

Last year, he was the leading scorer on an improbable conference championship team.

There have been plenty of memories off the floor, too, many involving his father Paul, who moved to Madison during Penney's freshman year and eased some of his son's homesickness.

"Usually (I see him) on the weekends because on the weekdays he's working and I'm busy with school," Penney said. "But on the weekend, it's hang time, just chilling out or going to the movie together or going to dinner and just catch up on the week. Father-son type of stuff."

Paul Penney has watched his son evolve from a standstill shooter to a player who must be defended all over the floor. Perhaps, Kirk Penney's biggest improvement has come in handling the ball and creating shots for himself and others.

He has sculpted a 205-pound body into the 220-pound mass of muscle it is today.

"He is the strongest guard in this league," Penn State coach Jerry Dunn said.

Penney has left an impression on his teammates, too.

Junior Freddie Owens remembers the encouragement Penney provided when he was discouraged by his playing time as a freshman. Sophomore forward Mike Wilkinson recalled how well Penney interacted with recruits. Freshman Alando Tucker, Penney's roommate on the road, has talked to Penney about adjusting to life away from home.

For others, Penney's play evokes memories.

"The way he works in the off-season," sophomore Devin Harris said when asked what he learned from Penney. "I've seen some of the things he does. He goes at everything full speed and everything he does, he does hard."

Penney has enjoyed many special moments for the Badgers. Last year, he scored 27 points in the second half against Minnesota to lead UW to a stunning come-from-behind victory. Earlier that season, he scored a collegiate-high 33 against Marquette.

And this year, he hit the winning shot against Ohio State with 7.4 seconds left and has led the team in scoring 12 times in 27 games.

Penney is hoping for a few more highlights Wednesday and then in the NCAA tournament.

After that, who knows? There presumably will be a chance to play professionally. There is also school. He has one year left in his major of landscape architecture.

But just as he starts talking about his past or future, he cuts himself short.

"I don't want to get caught up in it now," he said. "I'd rather just enjoy the situation and make the most of this opportunity."

A version of this story appeared in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel on March 5, 2003.