NEW YORK (Ticker) -- Connecticut is in familiar territory.
Caron Butler scored 20 points and freshman Ben Gordon provided a spark off the bench as the 24th-ranked Huskies advanced to the Big East Conference title game with an 82-77 victory over Notre Dame.
After a one-year absence, the Huskies (23-6) returned to the conference championship game for the sixth time in the last eight years, where they will meet No. 7 Pittsburgh.
"Being in Madison Square Garden on a Friday night is different," Huskies coach Jim Calhoun said. "I think we had terrific poise. Although we're a young team, we're pretty much tested in big games. We've been in some of these situations and had some success." Butler carried the Huskies in the opening half, when he scored 13 points to help open a 41-36 lead. Gordon, a Mount Vernon native, netted 11 of his 19 points after the break. He also handed out six assists.
"I realized I hadn't scored in a while," Gordon said. "We needed an offensive spark. I put it upon myself to try an seek out my shot more and I was fortunate enough to get some baskets." Freshman point guard Chris Thomas was sensational for Notre Dame (21-10) as he finished with 24 points, going 6-of-9 from 3-point range. He also handed out 10 assists and played all 40 minutes.
Ryan Humphrey added 21 points and 16 rebounds and Matt Carroll had 20 points for the Fighting Irish, who are all but assured of receiving an at-large berth into the NCAA Tournament.
"I didn't think we could get stops when we needed to," Notre Dame coach Mike Brey said. "They hit big shots and got big offensive rebounds when they needed them. I felt those were backbreakers for us." Meeting for the first time this season, the club's exchanged the lead 12 times in the opening 10 1/2 minutes of the contest.
Johnnie Selvie, who scored 16 points, made a driving layup with 26 seconds left in the first half, giving the Huskies the 41-36 advantage at the break.
The Fighting Irish started strongly in the second half, taking a 44-43 lead on a 3-pointer by Thomas with 17:18 remaining.
Tony Robertson, who starts ahead of Gordon, drilled a 3-pointer and moments later, Gordon had a steal and fed freshman Emeka Okafor for a layup to give the Huskies a 59-53 lead with 14:03 left.
That lead did not last long as Humphrey had a pair of baskets around one by Torrian Jones, tying it at 59-59 with 11:56 left.
But the Huskies reeled off the next 10 points, holding Notre Dame scoreless for more than five minutes to take their biggest lead at 69-59 with 6:36 to play on a dunk by Selvie. Gordon had four points and a steal in the burst.
Led by Gordon, the Huskies' bench outscored Notre Dame's reserves by a lopsided 23-2 margin.
Thomas tried to lead the Fighting Irish back, and his 3-pointer with 2:48 left narrowed the deficit to 74-69. He made two foul shots with 37 seconds left to close the deficit to 78-74, but the Fighting Irish could get no closer.
"Coach told me to control tempo and that's what we did," Thomas said. "Unfortunately, we couldn't stop them on the other end. That's why we couldn't close the gap." .