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Seton Hall basketball takes down No. 15 UConn on KC Ndefo put-back at :01

NEWARK – With the clock ticking down to zero, KC Ndefo positioned himself squarely under the basket amid three UConn players.

About a half-hour earlier, the Seton Hall basketball team’s enforcer successfully contested a layup by Huskies big man Adama Sanogo with an effort so forceful, he landed with a thud on his left wrist. As this epic Big East contest hit the homestretch, Ndefo was clutching the wrist in pain during timeouts.

No matter. With the Hall trailing by one on the final possession, guard Femi Odukale front-rimmed a 3-point attempt. The ball caromed directly to Ndefo. More precisely, it caromed directly into his injured left wrist.

In a fitting display of guts for a program forging an identity before everyone’s eyes, Ndefo corralled it and put it back through the hoop with 1.6 seconds left, lifting the Pirates to a 67-66 victory over the 15th-ranked Huskies as 9,700 fans blew Prudential Center's roof off.

Seton Hall Pirates forward KC Ndefo (13) celebrates with Seton Hall Pirates guard Al-Amir Dawes (2) after a basket during the second half against the Connecticut Huskies at Prudential Center.
Seton Hall Pirates forward KC Ndefo (13) celebrates with Seton Hall Pirates guard Al-Amir Dawes (2) after a basket during the second half against the Connecticut Huskies at Prudential Center.

“It was just being in good position,” Ndefo said afterward, his left forearm encased in a bag of ice slightly smaller than a cantaloupe.

“Just a little banged up,” he said with a grin.

There were bumps and bruises aplenty after Seton Hall rallied from 17 down, the program’s largest deficit overcome in a Big East game since a 20-point rally over St. John's in 2006. The Pirates (12-8 overall, 5-4 Big East) have won four straight and moved into the NCAA Tournament bubble picture. And they turned the tables on UConn (15-5, 4-5) which prides itself on bossing opponents into submission. It should be noted that Connecticut head coach Dan Hurley missed the game after testing positive for COVID-19. Assistant Luke Murray, son of famed actor Bill Murray, ran the team in his stead.

Senior forward Tyrese Samuel, the Hall’s longest-tenured player, summed up the mindset that enabled him to stand toe-to-toe with the mighty Sanogo – an unthinkable feat in years past.

“We're just mentally strong now," he said. "When we play physical, we’re hard to beat.”

Seton Hall is now 3-3 against UConn since the Huskies rejoined the Big East.

Seton Hall Pirates forward KC Ndefo (13) reacts after scoring the game-winning basket after being fouled by Connecticut Huskies forward Adama Sanogo (21) during the second half in front of guard Kadary Richmond (0) and guard Andre Jackson Jr. (44) at Prudential Center.
Seton Hall Pirates forward KC Ndefo (13) reacts after scoring the game-winning basket after being fouled by Connecticut Huskies forward Adama Sanogo (21) during the second half in front of guard Kadary Richmond (0) and guard Andre Jackson Jr. (44) at Prudential Center.
Seton Hall Pirates forward KC Ndefo (13) scores the game-winning basket after being fouled by Connecticut Huskies forward Adama Sanogo (21) during the second half in front of guard Kadary Richmond (0) and guard Andre Jackson Jr. (44) at Prudential Center.
Seton Hall Pirates forward KC Ndefo (13) scores the game-winning basket after being fouled by Connecticut Huskies forward Adama Sanogo (21) during the second half in front of guard Kadary Richmond (0) and guard Andre Jackson Jr. (44) at Prudential Center.

FIVE TAKEAWAYS

1. KC Ndefo sets the tone

Some guys are just flat-out winners. That's Ndefo.

The moxie that helped the forward lead Saint Peter's to the NCAA Tournament's Elite Eight is now in full view on the Big East stage. His 14 points and eight boards only told part of the story. Two rim-rattling dunks energized the crowd and his teammates as they clawed back in the second half. His help defense in the post and on the wings was impeccable. Even his intentionally missed free throw in the final second was perfectly executed.

"His deflections, his energy, his put-back dunk -- he did the things that I’ve seen him do for the last four years with me at Saint Peter’s," Hall coach Shaheen Holloway said.

“We’ve seen it every day since he got here," point guard Kadary Richmond said of Ndefo's toughness. "It’s become second nature to us.”

There's a lot of season left, but Ndefo is carving out a unique legacy as a driving force in two New Jersey programs.

Seton Hall Pirates forward Tyrese Samuel (4) shoots the ball as Connecticut Huskies guard Tristen Newton (2) defends during the first half at Prudential Center. Mandatory Credit: Vincent Carchietta-USA TODAY Sports
Seton Hall Pirates forward Tyrese Samuel (4) shoots the ball as Connecticut Huskies guard Tristen Newton (2) defends during the first half at Prudential Center. Mandatory Credit: Vincent Carchietta-USA TODAY Sports

2. Tyrese Samuel, take a bow

Again, the numbers don't tell the full story: 9 points on 3-of-9 shooting, 7 rebounds. Samuel held Sanogo to 6 points on 2-of-6 shooting and three rebounds in the second half. Holloway doesn't believe in double-teaming, so while Samuel did have some helpers at times, defending Sanogo fell mostly on his shoulders. He successfully pushed the tree trunk away from the rim, and his two late steals were heady, crucial plays.

When Holloway first started working with the holdover Pirates last spring, and even early on this season, he didn't quite know what to make of Samuel -- a talented guy but not particularly aggressive. That's changed. Samuel has become a Holloway guy, someone the coach would take into a street fight.

"He battled, and that's all I ask," Holloway said, later adding, “It’s coming (for Samuel). I thought from the beginning to now, there’s a big difference that I see with him in practice. It’s coming, and we’ve just got to continue it."

Seton Hall Pirates guard Kadary Richmond (0) shoots as Connecticut Huskies forward Adama Sanogo (21) defends during the first half at Prudential Center.
Seton Hall Pirates guard Kadary Richmond (0) shoots as Connecticut Huskies forward Adama Sanogo (21) defends during the first half at Prudential Center.

3. Defense and poise

Without a doubt, the second half featured Seton Hall's best defense of the season. UConn scored just 26 points on 29 percent shooting and committed 12 turnovers. The Huskies are an elite defensive team -- this was a meeting of the top two defenses in the Big East -- so trailing by 17 is like trailing by 25 against a typical foe. It required a total shutdown of UConn's offense.

"The defensive mentality, it comes with coaching style," Richmond said.

“You see guys jelling more, buying into the system," Ndefo said. "We're more locked in now. It starts with chemistry, guys getting to play with each other more often. We're clicking."

Notable: After a season of struggles at the free-throw line, the Hall converted 13 of 15 in the second half (one of the misses was intentional). Richmond (18 points, 10 rebounds) sank 8 of 10 from the stripe. The Pirates get to the line so frequently that any uptick in conversion rate could sway outcomes.

"You guys might think I’m full of crap, but I don’t think anyone in the country shoots more free throws than us," Holloway said. "We shoot free throws — like, if it’s a two-hour practice, I would say for 30 minutes in that two-hour practice. We’ve just got to go to the line and cash in. Guys made them down the stretch."

Seton Hall Pirates fans cheer during the second half against the Connecticut Huskies at Prudential Center.
Seton Hall Pirates fans cheer during the second half against the Connecticut Huskies at Prudential Center.

4. Crowd of the year

The 9,700 fans who turned out bided a torturous first half, ready to explode, ready to unload. Then, as the Pirates turned things around, they erupted. This was the loudest crowd here since the Rutgers game in December 2021 -- and one of the most raucous since this building opened in 2007. And it wasn't just normal noise. You could feel the visceral dislike for UConn in the air, being wielded like a club.

In terms of atmosphere and magnitude, Samuel compared it to the best he's seen here in his career.

“This actually might be No. 1," he said. "This reminded me of when we beat Butler when Sandro (Mamukelashvili) hit the game-winner (in 2020). Crowd was phenomenal, loud, it felt like a March Madness game. When (Ndefo) made that bucket, it was surreal. Great moment for KC, happy for him, happy for the Pirates. Shout-out to all the fans who came out, gave great energy. We need you guys here Saturday as well.”

How much of a difference can a crowd make?

"There was one time (late) in the game when Femi dunked the ball and UConn tried to come down and run a play," Samuel explained. "It was so loud, they didn't know what was going on. I thought, 'Perfect, this is what we need.' Home court advantage means a lot."

Students tried to storm the court at the final buzzer but were rebuffed by arena security. So guard Al Dawes (11 points) led a group of players over to them to celebrate along the baseline student section.

"Welcome back to the students; I missed them," said Holloway, who took the unusual step of exhorting the crowd, arms waving wildly, during one timeout. "I thought it was loud…not just the students, I thought everybody was loud, but the students just bring another element of energy."

Noteworthy: The UConn fan presence was limited to one section behind the Huskies’ bench and a bit of spillover – far smaller than they typically bring. Providence brought more fans in December. Needless to say, they were thoroughly drowned out.

5. Opportunity, part 2

With three Quad 1 victories and a NET ranking that continues to drop (now 61) the Pirates have vaulted themselves into the Big Dance bubble conversation.

The week of opportunity continues Saturday when 20th-ranked Marquette (15-5, 6-2) visits Newark (4 p.m., Fox Sports 1). The Golden Eagles handled the Hall 83-69 in Milwaukee Dec. 27. But that was ages ago in terms of the Pirates’ development.

“(This was) very important -- wins like this always help the cause," Ndefo said of UConn. "But we're taking it one game at a time."

Win the next one, and Hall fans can start dreaming big.

Jerry Carino has covered the New Jersey sports scene since 1996 and the college basketball beat since 2003. He is an Associated Press Top 25 voter. Contact him at jcarino@gannettnj.com.

This article originally appeared on Asbury Park Press: Seton Hall basketball takes down No. 15 UConn on KC Ndefo bucket