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UConn men beat Seton Hall to clinch third place in Big East

Last fall, Big East basketball coaches picked UConn to finish fourth in its first year back in the conference.

The Huskies have exceeded those expectations.

And they’re not finished yet.

They locked up third place and improved their NCAA tournament resume with a key 69-58 victory over Seton Hall on Wednesday night at the Prudential Center in Newark, N.J.

“It means a lot, especially coming from the American and coming here,” senior Isaiah Whaley said. “To get third place, that’s a big jump. But we’re not satisfied. We’re still hungry and we want more. We’re going to celebrate this and get right back to work (Thursday).”

Winning for the fifth time in six games, UConn improved to 13-6 overall, 10-6 in the league and increased their odds of qualifying for the NCAA tournament. Seton Hall lost its third straight game, falling to 13-11, 10-8.

The program has come a long way in coach Dan Hurley’s three seasons.

“It’s program building,” Hurley said. “This is what (athletic director) Dave (Benedict) hired me to do and I hired my staff to do and we recruited and developed these players to do.”

The Huskies dominated under the basket, holding a 40-28 edge in rebounds, and limited the Pirates to 40 percent shooting. They made their foul shots, sinking 15 of 16.

The inside duo of Whaley and freshman Adama Sanogo sparked the offense.

Whaley finished with a season-high 17 points and added 10 rebounds and two blocks while playing tight defense on Big East player of the year candidate Sandro Mamukelashvili, who had 20 points but went 7 for 20 from the field.

“Isaiah was MVP of the game,” Hurley said. “He just made things so hard for Mamu and made him earn those numbers.”

Sanogo, who played high school basketball down the road at The Patrick School in Hillside, played his best game, notching career highs in points (16) and rebounds (nine).

“It feels good to win this game against Seton Hall and play well,” Sanogo said. “I’m happy right now.”

Sophomore James Bouknight chipped in 16 points and redshirt junior R.J. Cole, another New Jersey native, scored 14 points.

After a sluggish start and falling behind by nine, UConn took the lead for good on the last possession of the first half and remained in front until hitting the finish line.

“Huge win for us,” Hurley said. “It’s our seventh road win. I thought we responded great. … They really punched us in the mouth but we were able to stabilize.”

The Huskies chipped away at the early deficit and overtook the Pirates late in the first half. Whaley’s inside basket with three seconds remaining handed UConn its first lead, 27-26, and capped an 8-0 spurt.

They stretched their run to 14-0 by scoring the first three baskets — one each by Bouknight, Whaley and Sanogo — in the second half to take a 33-27 edge.

They extended their advantage to 13 points and the Pirates never got closer than seven.

It was a great sign that the Huskies were able to maintain their lead after Bouknight went to the bench with his third foul with 11:58 left.

By the time Bouknight returned about two minutes later, UConn had stretched a five point lead to seven. The Huskies improved to 9-2 with Bouknight in the lineup

They close out the regular season by hosting Georgetown at Gampel Pavilion on Senior Day.

“We feel really good. We’re going to get over this one quickly and we’re going to lock in on Georgetown,” Hurley said. “We want to go into the Big East tournament on a run.”

g.keefe@theday.com

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