NEWARK, N.J. – During St. Peter’s run to the Elite Eight last year, KC Ndefo gained a reputation as a tenacious rebounder and a hard-nosed defender who led the nation in blocks at 6-foot-7.
When Shaheen Holloway left St. Peter’s to coach his alma mater, Seton Hall, he brought Ndefo with him as a graduate transfer.
Fittingly, it was Ndefo who came away with a crucial rebound and winning put-back to give Holloway the biggest win of his first season as Pirates coach, as Seton Hall defeated No. 15 UConn 67-66 on Wednesday night.
“We’ve been seeing it every day since he got here,” Kadary Richmond said. “So it just becomes second nature to the rest of us that are in the locker room with him and in practice.”
Richmond had a game-high 18 points and 10 rebounds, while Ndefo had 14 points, including a last-second layup.
“I felt like I was doing a good job crashing the boards all game,” Ndefo said.
Ndefo grabbed his eighth rebound and had a follow-up layup with 1.6 seconds left. While he missed the ensuing free throw, Seton Hall (12-8, 5-4 Big East) held on to win after trailing by 17 in the first half.
“We’re starting to understand what I want. We’re starting to understand that if we defend and keep teams out of transition, we give ourselves a chance to win the game,” Holloway said.
UConn (15-5, 4-5 Big East) was without coach Dan Hurley due to COVID-19. The Huskies were trying to halt a two-loss skid, as Adama Sanogo scored 16 points and five rebounds, while Jordan Hawkins was an efficient 4-of-8 for 13 points to go along with six rebounds.
UConn jumped out to a 3-0 start and led 29-19 with just under five minutes left in the half. The Huskies would go on to lead by as many as 17 before the break, as Seton Hall trailed 40-26 after 20 minutes.
“We’re just mentally strong,” Tyrese Samuel said. “Being down 17, going into halftime, it’s like, ‘don’t worry, there’s another 20 minutes.”‘
Ndefo gave an emphatic slam of a miss from Samuel. Al-Amir Dawes then made a couple layups before his 3-pointer cut UConn’s lead to 48-40 early in the second half. When Ndefo had another dunk – this time on a fast break that Dawes assisted – UConn interim coach Luke Murray called a timeout with his team up 48-45 with 14:14 left.
“I thought I did a poor job coaching the guys in the second half, offensively in particular,” Murray said. “We talked about it at halftime. We knew that Seton Hall was gonna pick up the pressure in the second half, and we didn’t do a good job of handling it.”
COVID HITS COACH
Hurley and associate head coach Kimani Young were not on the sidelines after both tested positive for the coronavirus, the school announced early Wednesday. Neither made the trip to New Jersey on Tuesday. UConn assistant coaches Tom Moore and Murray, son of comedian Bill Murray, are in charge. Moore missed last week’s game at Marquette due to COVID.
Director of player development Mamadou Diarra and video and scouting coordinator Matthew Johnson each moved us a seat up on the bench.
Seen as a Final Four and National Championship contender just a few weeks ago, UConn has continued to tumble after falling nine spots in the latest Top 25 Poll.
UConn: After ascending as high as No. 2 before Christmas, the Huskies have lost five of their last six.
Seton Hall: The Pirates have won four in a row. After some early season growing pains, Seton Hall appears to be figuring things out under Holloway.
UConn: Hosts Butler on Sunday.
Seton Hall: Hosts No. 20 Marquette on Saturday.