The first time they met this season, Seton Hall bothered Connecticut for a half. The second time, the undermanned Pirates had one of the country's top teams sweating until the final minutes.
On Thursday, with the Big East Conference tournament quarterfinals as the setting, top-seeded and third-ranked Connecticut didn't put Seton Hall away until the buzzer.
"Three times in a row and certainly more so tonight, they did a terrific job of dictating the pace," Connecticut coach Jim Calhoun said after the Huskies beat the ninth-seeded Pirates 57-56 at Madison Square Garden. "Sometimes we don't have the choosing of which song is sung and how we're going to dance. They did a great job of frustrating us. They are very tough for us to play."
That was evident for 40 minutes this time as the Pirates used the shot clock to shorten the game and a 2-3 zone to spread the court in again scaring the Huskies (26-2), the team which usually makes life miserable for others.
"I thought our players responded well and did a lot of nice things in terms of shortening the game, how we ran our defense, how we ran our offense, making them play defense," Seton Hall coach Tommy Amaker said. "But they are so explosive and have so many weapons and they came through."
It was specifically junior forward Kevin Freeman who came through and gave the Huskies the chance to play in Friday's semifinals against Syracuse.
It was Freeman's tip-in of a missed 3-pointer by Richard Hamilton with 1:27 to play that gave Connecticut the lead for good at 51-50. His dunk after a nice pass from Khalid El-Amin with 29 seconds left made it 53-50 and gave him 22 points for the game and 1,003 for his career.
"I saw Rip shooting from the opposite side and as a rebounder you know it's going to come off to the opposite side," Freeman said of hi fifth rebound of the game and the third on the offensive end. "At first I was going to grab it and come down with it and then I felt I could get the tip-in and luckily tipped it in."
In the 62-47 win over Seton Hall (15-14) on Jan. 23, the Huskies took control early in the second half. In the 53-48 win on Feb. 13, the closing 15-4 run wiped out the Pirates' six-point lead with 6½ minutes to play. This time it wasn't Freeman's last two baskets that decided it or even El-Amin and Hamilton each making both ends of a 1-and-1 over the final 16 seconds.
Instead, it came down to a player trying to miss and he couldn't.
Hamilton's two free throws with two seconds left made it 57-54. Connecticut's Rashamel Jones fouled Seton Hall's Gary Saunders before the ball was inbounded, denying the Pirates the chance at a possible game-tying 3-pointer.
Saunders, who finished with 18 points and six assists, made the front end of the 1-and-1. He tried to miss the second so his teammates would have a chance at converting the rebound, but the ball hit the rim and went in.
"I tried to shoot it off-balance and the ball just went in the rim," Saunders said. "I tried to shoot it short. When I want to make free throws, I miss them. When I want to miss them, I make them."
| Richard Hamilton struggled with this loose ball, but UConn finally got a grip on things. (AP)|
Hamilton had 15 points on 5-for-16 shooting, including 2-for-8 from 3-point range, while El-Amin had seven points on 1-for-8 shooting but did have seven assists, including the big one to Freeman.
"Usually what happens is that big-time players make big-time plays," Calhoun said. "Some of them have a belief you're not going to lose, and after 25 wins, our kids certainly believe that."
Calhoun also believes his team will be one the four No. 1 seeds in next week's NCAA tournament, even if it had become just the third Big East top seed to lose in the quarterfinals.
"After winning 25 out of 27 basketball games and winning the Big East with two Top Ten teams like Miami and St. John's in it, I don't have any doubts that our seeding is done and was done before we stepped on the court today," he said.
For Seton Hall, the season could continue with a second straight NIT berth.
"We've tried to keep taking positives out of a negative out of a loss to great team three times now. It gets old," Amaker said. "Hopefully, we have some basketball to be played."
© 1998 CBS SportsLine USA, Inc. All rights reserved