The top player and high scorer for Cincinnati this season said he enrolled for moments such as this. Lance Stephenson, the freshman from Brooklyn, helped his team win two tight games and reach the Big East Tournament quarterfinals, then scored 19 points in Thursday night's 54-51 loss to West Virginia. It is anyone's guess how much he could have changed the world for the school close to his home, if not so close to his heart.
It almost surely would have been a much different tournament, and a far different New York basketball scene, had Stephenson not changed his mind about attending St. John's. Instead of dealing with reports Thursday about coach Norm Roberts' possible dismissal and the whirl of rumors about who might be next, St. John's might have been playing in a quarterfinal and probably would have been aiming at higher goals.
Instead, St. John's was in turmoil Thursday while Stephenson was in the paint - and possibly on the bubble for an NCAA Tournament berth with his team.
"That's why I came to Cincinnati, to change the program around, play hard and just win games," he said after making a free throw that beat Rutgers in the first round Tuesday, a day before he helped the Bearcats upset Louisville.
Stephenson, New York State's all-time leading high school scorer, has not had great numbers. He averaged 12.0 points a game during the regular season and was at 12.5 through the first two games of the tournament. But he has made a difference. He has been a presence on the floor at the Garden, where he helped Lincoln win four consecutive PSAL Class AA championships.
"This is the best conference in college basketball,'' Stephenson said earlier in the week. "I wanted to get everybody ready in the gym and work hard and get prepared."
He irritated a sore spot during a conference call before Cincinnati's first visit to the Garden. Praise of his current coach came across as a slap at Roberts. At the time, Stephenson said, "I felt Mick [Cronin] could help me be a better player, and I felt like he was a better coach."
Roberts declined to fire back, even after the Red Storm beat Stephenson's team Jan. 13. After that game, Roberts said, "Lance is going to be a terrific player. He's going to be an NBA player. He's a good kid. We wish him all the best. I just don't want him to beat us. He's a New York kid, I'm a New York guy. I love all New York kids, even if they don't play for me.''