01/03/2010 12:03 AM ET
Stephenson finds inspiration in Liara
Former Lincoln star has a two-year old daughter
By Adam Zagoria / SNY.tv
Lance Stephenson is a star on the court, and a father off. (AP)

PISCATAWAY, N.J. -- After Cincinnati beat Rutgers 65-58 Saturday night, Lance Stephenson wore a Yankees cap and a smile as he walked diagonally across the Rutgers Athletic Center floor.

He had one thought on his mind. He wanted to see his daughter.

In addition to being a heralded freshman basketball player at Cincinnati, Stephenson is also the proud father of a 2-year-old girl named Liara.

"My daughter's played a big role in my life," Stephenson said after scoring 10 points and grabbing 6 rebounds in the victory. "Ever since she came I've just been real focused. I take everything more serious. I'm just more mature. Having a daughter made me take everything serious and be a good father."

This was the first of three games the 6-foot-5, 210-pound Stephenson will play in the New York metropolitan area in a span of 12 days.

After home dates with Pitt Monday and Cal State Bakersfield Wednesday, the Bearcats (10-3, 2-0 Big East) visit Seton Hall Saturday and then play St. John's at Madison Square Garden Jan. 13.

That means more time for Stephenson -- who shocked the basketball world by committing to Cincinnati last June, a story first reported by SNY.tv - to spend with Liara and his family.

"It's great to be home," the Coney Island native said. "I ain't seen my family in about two months now. I'm just happy to see them and I'm trying to enjoy my time with them. I'm trying to spend time with them now."

Lance Stephenson Sr. and his wife, Bernadette, sat behind the Cincinnati bench and watched as Stephenson played a steady, if not spectacular, game.

He was coming off a dramatic showing in the Bearcats' 71-69 overtime victory Wednesday against No. 10 UConn.

In that game, Stephenson drove the paint in the final seconds of the extra period, was fouled and promptly made two game-winning free throws on national television.

This time around, he shot 4-for-11, contributing to a team-victory that included a game-high 17 points from senior guard Deonta Vaughn and 10 points and 8 rebounds from Yancy Gates.

"I thought he played well," said Lance Stephenson Sr., also wearing a cap of the world champion Yankees. "Coach [Mick] Cronin and the Cincinnati coaching staff are doing a great job with the whole team, not just Lance. The Big East is tough. To get the kids ready to play every game is a challenge. So he's doing a good job. I'm happy."

At Lincoln High School in Brooklyn, the alma mater of former Knick Stephon Marbury and current Los Angeles Clippers guard Sebastian Telfair, Stephenson had the green light to take any and every time he wanted.

He was criticized in some quarters as a selfish player and a "ball-stopper" who didn't pass.

Yet there was no doubting he was a winner and a competitor. He led the Railsplitters to an unprecedented four straight PSAL championships. He surpassed Telfair as the all-time leading scorer in New York State history and was named a McDonald's All-American.

Despite his extensive prep resume, Stephenson is still learning his way in the college game. He said it took him three games to adjust to the speed of the next level.

Still, he entered the Rutgers game as the leading scorer (13.3 ppg) and the second-leading assist man (2.9 apg) on a team with three benchmark wins against Top 25 programs Vanderbilt, Maryland and UConn.

"At Lincoln I used to just go. Now I got a coach that puts me in the spot and I got to...know when to go to the hole and when to pass it," he said.

Playing alongside Vaughn, Gates and Paterson, N.J. native Rashad Bishop, Stephenson must pick and choose his moments.

"He's matured a lot," Vaughn said. "Knowing how to get everybody else open and...knowing when to take the shot, it's hard for a freshman to be able to come in with that type of impact being just known as a scorer. But he showed everybody else he's a mature player. He can also pass and make the right plays for his teammates."

Rutgers coach Fred Hill also said he was impressed by Stephenson's growing maturity on the court.

"He's growing," said Hill, whose team was out-rebounded, 40-28, including 13-8 on the offensive glass. "He's a very unselfish player. He can pass the basketball. I think he's growing and letting the game come to him. He's a guy that they need to be aggressive at times. There's a real fine line with players like that to understand when and when not to be aggressive. When to take over the game and the great ones learn to make a play for their teammates. They don't always have to get a shot. I've been very impressed with his maturity at this early stage of the game."

He added: "He's a good player that does a lot of things to effect the game. He could be one-and-done, maybe two-and-one. He's certainly got that type of talent."

Stephenson is one of several special freshmen nationwide who could jump after this year.

Kentucky star John Wall, who earlier Saturday scored 17 points in the Wildcats' nationally televised win over Louisville, is expected to be the No. 1 overall pick.

DeMarcus Cousins, Wall's 6-11 Kentucky teammate; Kansas' Xavier Henry (team-high 15 points in the Jayhawks' 84-52 rout of Temple); and Georgia Tech's Derrick Favors could also be lottery picks.

If the interest is there from NBA scouts, Stephenson may well head to the pros after this season, too.

"We're not really thinking about [anything] too far in advance," his father said. "We're just thinking about the next game right now."

With a daughter to provide for down the road, the appeal of jumping to the NBA is alluring for Stephenson.

Cronin, who surprised everyone by landing the New York star last June and then letting the family know that he was in charge of his development, is not looking that far ahead. But Cronin believes fatherhood has matured Stephenson.

"He and I just try to talk about growing up," Cronin said. "But you have to have fun being in college and learn the game. Don't stare at the top of the mountain. Let's just start climbing and enjoy climbing."

With a daughter to inspire him and eventually provide for, Stephenson's climb up the mountaintop of life has begun.

Adam Zagoria is a regular contributor to SNY.tv. Read his blog at ZagsBlog.com and follow him on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/AdamZagoria.
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