In Lance Stephenson's Homecoming the Big East Freshman of the Year led the Bearcats to their first Big East Tournament win.
Stephenson carried the poor shooting Cats on his back with 11 second half points, including the decisive free throw with 1.8 seconds left.
In his first game back to Madison Square Garden since the mid-January 52-50 loss in which Stephenson was heartily booed, the freshman contributed thirteen hard fought points and nine rebounds.
In January Lance Stephenson was booed wildly by the New York crowd as he teased the Johnnie faithful for years, souring them on the New York legend. He scored just seven points while committing six turnovers.
"I don't think it makes up for it," said Stephenson. "I just wanted to play hard to win the game."
This time the crowd was less partisan with an amalgamation of fan bases in the arena to see Stephenson's return.
His passing skills were predictably impressive. The one change in his game that Lance made was penetration. Too often this season Lance relegated himself to a jump shooter.
"I learned from the beginning of the season against Xavier not to settle for the jumpshot," said Stephenson. "I went to the hole like I did against UConn and tried to get a basket or foul."
Tonight the Brooklyn guard reminded locals of the unguardable high school kid. With his strong frame and slick body control Lance got several layups.
Large segments of the second half saw UC fight, claw, and pursuit every rebound with the vigor or a team that has their back against the wall. The ball movement was tremendous, unselfish. The effort out of Gates brought back memories of November Yancy.
Ibrahima Thomas was not an offensive threat versus Rutgers, but his rebounding certainly helped. The agile junior yanked down 12 rebounds to lead the Cats. As a team UC hauled in nearly two dozen offensive rebounds leading to numerous second chance points.
One player Rutgers misses dearly is Gregory Echenique. The sophomore left the program in January. He averaged nearly 9.0 rebounds per game in his brief Scarlet Knight career.
Without him the Knights got pummeled on the boards, losing the fight 44-27 to a powerful UC team.
The Cats tried as hard as they could to give the game away. Turnovers in the final minute coupled with silly fouls enabled Rutgers chance after chance.
When Vaughn missed his first free throw with 23 seconds left the Scarlet Nation gained strength. Mike Rosario buried an awkward three-pointer squaring the game at 68.
Lance wisely drove to the basket, making himself a threat with the ball as the game clock dwindled. He knocked the clinching free throw before intentionally missing the follow-up. Neither team had any timeout so Rutgers could not advance the ball.
Rosario was forced to send a full court heave. As the ball landed harmlessly out of bounds Cincinnati celebrated its first Big East Tournament win in its five year conference history.
The win means almost nothing big picture. Cincinnati is not a bubble team anymore. Where it helps is emotionally. Players and coaches that lost seven games in nine opportunities lose faith, lose heart, and question their abilities.
If nothing else this narrow victory gives the Cincinnati basketball program a restful, calmed heart for a few hours tonight. Their next opportunity will be Wednesday night, tip time approximately 9:30 EST. The battle will follow the conclusion of the Notre Dame-Seton Hall game.