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Guard doesn't want trip to end

Last Updated: March 26, 2003

Minneapolis - Were this some rookie, someone who hadn't been around the block a few times, there might be reason to worry.

Kirk Penney? He has darn near been around the world.

Wisconsin's senior guard can tell tales of travels to Germany, Italy and Australia. As a 19-year-old, he was one the youngest members of New Zealand's 2000 Olympic team. As a 22-year-old, he scored 16 points against the U.S. Dream Team in a World Championships game that, at least for one half, was too competitive for the Americans' tastes.

The Badgers have played 19 NCAA tournament games in their history. Penney has suited up for 10 of them. Seven of them have been victories.

He is as experienced as they come in the college game. He isn't the type to let a bad game, even one in the tournament, get under his skin. Penney is more concerned about his teammates' state of mind than his own.

"You're looking around the room more and seeing how everyone else is behaving and reacting rather than worrying about yourself," he said. "You've got to have that self-belief to make sure that everyone is ready. The young guys are ready to go and then you're ready to play."

Not only does fifth-seeded Wisconsin (24-7) need a calm and collected Penney when it plays top-seeded Kentucky (31-3) in Midwest Regional semifinal at 6:10 p.m. Thursday at the Metrodome, it needs him to be sharp.

It's unlikely the Badgers can advance if Penney endures another 2-for-12 shooting day, as he did Saturday against Tulsa.

Penney scored a season-low six points in Wisconsin's 61-60 victory over the Golden Hurricane. Although he grabbed five rebounds and his four assists gave him a share of the team lead, Penney didn't score during the Badgers' 16-2 run to close the game.

His final basket came with 16 minutes 48 seconds left and his final point came with 8:43 to go.

Yet he was rejuvenated by seeing his teammates spark that rally.

"It feels like a new life and you want to make the most of this opportunity that we've been given, being able to advance past that second game and being able to play a team like Kentucky," he said. "I'm very thankful to be able to go out on that court again and play with the guys."

It won't be any easier tonight. The Wildcats, who have won 25 straight games and finished the regular season ranked No. 1 in both polls, have been known to overwhelm opponents with their defense.

But Penney has a history of rebounding well from poor offensive games.

Before Saturday, Penney failed to reach double figures four times this season. In the games that followed, he made 45% of his shots (27 of 60), 43.4% from three-point range and averaged 19 points.

His biggest rebound performances were a 9-for-18, 23-point performance against Texas Southern after struggling in a loss to Marquette and a 7-for-17, 23-point showing against Northwestern after he had eight in a loss to Purdue.

Neither of those squads matches the caliber of Kentucky.

"He's going to be ready," assistant coach Tony Bennett said. "He's played in so many big games in his career. Seniors. Leadership, you've got to have it now. This is the time."

Tulsa played Wisconsin with man-to-man defense and used Jarius Glenn, a 6-6 sophomore, to hound Penney. However, Golden Hurricane coach John Phillips mixed in some zone and even briefly played a triangle-and-two.

Kentucky can throw a variety of defenses against opponents, too, and is known to switch defenses from possession to possession.

"Coach likes to change defenses. That's part of our game plan," Kentucky guard Gerald Fitch said. "We play a lot of defenses and try to mix teams up a lot and try to catch teams off guard."

That's what lies ahead tonight for Penney, who knows that, win or lose, the end is near.

It crosses his mind not only while getting dressed but during his pregame tape job, when he puts on his shoes and uniform and when he's looking around the locker room at teammates before the game.

He'll go down as one of the Badgers' all-time greats. His 1,435 points rank sixth all-time. He is the first Wisconsin player to be a first-team all-Big Ten choice choice in consecutive years since 1952.

He has played in a Final Four, won two Big Ten championships and has twice reached the Sweet 16.

What else could a player want?

For Penney, the answer is simple: that his next game won't be the last as a Badger.

"It's been a wonderful career here and you want to it to go on as long as possible and you want to play with these guys as long as possible," he said. "No one wants to hang up their jersey and you saw the fight that every player had in that last game. No one wants to hang up the jersey. We want to play together as long as possible."

A version of this story appeared in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel on March 27, 2003.