The man accused of fatally stabbing a University of Connecticut football player outside a party on campus in 2009 pleaded no contest on Friday to first-degree manslaughter.

John Lomax III, of Bloomfield, who had faced a murder charge, entered his plea to the lesser charge in Superior Court in Rockville, according to the court clerk's office.

Lomax faces up to 20 years in prison at sentencing. An investigation of the case was ordered ahead of the sentencing set for March 25.

As he was questioned by the judge about his plea, an emotional Lomax apologized to Howard's family inside the courtroom.

"I would like to extend my condolences to the Howard family," Lomax said in remarks reported by The Hartford Courant. "I understand how it hurts to lose a loved one. ... I wouldn't want this to happen to anybody."

Authorities say the 22-year-old Lomax stabbed Jasper Howard, a defensive back, in the abdomen during a dispute outside a dance on campus on Oct. 18, 2009, that investigators think started over a comment one player made about a woman.

The slaying of Howard, a Miami native whose friends called him "Jazz," cast a dark cloud over an otherwise bright season for the Huskies, who became the first New England team to play in BCS bowl when they reached the Fiesta Bowl earlier this month.

A murder trial had been scheduled to begin later this month.

Defense attorney Donald Freeman said Lomax entered the plea to reduce any liability he might have in a civil suit, according to the Courant. Freeman did not immediately respond to a request for comment by The Associated Press.

According to an arrest warrant affidavit, Lomax and a friend, Hakim Muhammad, retrieved knives from a car during the altercation, which broke out between a group of football players and a group that included Lomax.

Muhammad is accused of stabbing former UConn player Brian Parker during the fight, and he faces assault and other charges. He has pleaded not guilty and is free on bail.

Several witnesses identified Lomax as the man who stabbed Howard, according to the affidavit. But Lomax denied it was him and his lawyers said there were other witnesses who support his version of events.

According to the affidavit, wide receiver Mike Smith told police he saw Howard throw a punch at a man later identified as Lomax. Smith said that Howard ran across the street yelling, "They got me!" and that he walked with him toward the student center before Howard collapsed on the sidewalk.

Other players identified as being at the altercation included defensive end A.J. Portee, receiver Kashif Moore and tailback Kelmetrus Wiley. Parker, who suffered minor injuries, was dismissed from the team in January for academic reasons. None of the players has been charged with any crime.