CINCINNATI (AP)—With 10,409 fans holding their breath and the game on the line, Lance Stephenson calmly dribbled the ball, lined up his free throw and made it. Then, he made another.
No freshman nerves there.
Stephenson was fouled with less than a second to play and made both free throws Wednesday night, rallying Cincinnati to a breakthrough 71-69 victory over No. 10 Connecticut in a wild Big East opener for both teams that was settled by the Bearcats’ most highly regarded recruit in years.
“All I was thinking was let me go to the free-throw line because I knew I was going to knock them down,” said Stephenson, who finished 7 of 7 from the line.
Cincinnati (9-3) had lost all five previous games against UConn (9-3) and watched this one nearly slip away, too. The Bearcats led by as many as 12 points in the second half, but the Huskies made a late run and tied it on Kemba Walker’s 3-pointer with 9.4 seconds to go.
Stephenson dribbled into the lane on the final play and was fouled by Gavin Edwards a few feet from the basket as the buzzer sounded. After a review, the officials put seventh-tenths of a second on the clock, and Stephenson went to the line for his 20th and 21st points.
Edwards was surprised to draw the whistle on the deciding play.
“It was a tough call,” Edwards said. “There was a lot going on on that play. He ran into me. I didn’t come down into his arm.”
All that UConn could do was hope that time had run out before the whistle blew. When the clock was reset to 0.7, all the Huskies could do was hope Stephenson would feel like a freshman in a big game.
“That’s not an easy spot for any kid to stand up,” Connecticut coach Jim Calhoun said.
Stephenson, a 60 percent shooter from the line, made them when they mattered most.
“I was thinking, ‘Lord, let him make this shot,”’ senior guard Deonta Vaughn said. “It’s a tough situation to be in as a freshman, but we shoot those types of shots in practice where it’s a pressure shot.”
Jerome Dyson scored 24 points and Stanley Robinson added 22 as UConn lost its scoring balance during its first true road game of the season. The rest of the team went a combined 6 of 27 from the field.
“Somebody’s got to step up,” Robinson said.
It was a measuring-up game for Cincinnati, which expects to hold its own in the Big East and get back to the NCAA tournament for the first time since 2005, when Bob Huggins was still the head coach. The Huskies came to Cincinnati last January and won by 11 to keep their record perfect against Cincinnati.
“To beat them for the first time means a lot,” said Vaughn, who finished with a season-high 17 points. “Everybody was more focused today. We came in and knew what we had to do to get the win.”
The Bearcats knew it would come down to their front line. In Cincinnati’s wins over then-ranked Vanderbilt and Maryland, the front line dominated the boards. In other games, it got shoved around. This time, it held its own.
Vaughn, who went through a 3-of-23 shooting slump from behind the arc, made consecutive 3s that started a 12-2 run and put the Bearcats ahead 30-18. Vaughn yelled and pumped his fist after the second 3, showing his confidence was back.
Robinson had a basket and a three-point play during a 9-0 run that got it down to 30-27 and turned it into a back-and-forth game. Neither team got into an offensive flow in the half, which ended with Cincinnati ahead 36-35.
Vaughn hit another 3 during a nine-point run that rebuilt the lead to 47-37 early in the second half. The Huskies managed only one basket during the opening 5:26 of the half, going 1 of 9 with three turnovers during that span.
UConn made its last surge behind Dyson, who scored 10 points during a spurt that cut it to 67-63 with 2:27 to go.