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Updated: Thursday, March 11, 2004 11:53 PM EST
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(9) Connecticut 66, Notre Dame 58

NEW YORK (Ticker) -- Connecticut coach Jim Calhoun warned his team about the possibility of playing without Emeka Okafor. Ben Gordon appeared to be listening.

Gordon poured in 29 points, including a pair of key baskets in the final 1:32, as the ninth-ranked Huskies survived without Okafor for a 66-58 victory over Notre Dame in the quarterfinals of the Big East tournament.

Okafor, the Big East Player of the Year, sat out Thursday's game with a small stress fracture of the fifth lumbar vertabrae in his back, a situation that Calhoun prepared his team for. Team physician Jeff Anderson indicated that Okafor might be available for Friday.

First, Connecticut (25-6) had to win without its best player and Gordon was a major reason why. The star guard suffered through an 11-point performance in Sunday's loss at Syracuse, but was aggressive on the offensive end throughout.

"Yeah, I just looked at it as a really big opportunity," Gordon said. "Emeka is a really good player. I knew myself and some of the other players would have to pick up the slack."

Notre Dame (17-12) pulled within 59-56 on Rick Cornett's follow shot with 3:04 remaining and Chris Thomas missed a potential tying 3-point attempt nearly a minute later.

That set the stage for Gordon, who made a driving layup over Chris Quinn with 1:32 to go and added a long 3-pointer 46 seconds later for a comfortable 64-56 lead.

"Couple shots that Ben hit down the stretch are reminiscent of Ray (former UConn star Ray Allen), reminiscent of some of the other guys who have been in this program," Calhoun said.

The Huskies will face Villanova in the semifinals.

While Gordon filled it up from outside, the Huskies were able to replace Okafor's production from a pair of freshmen. Charlie Villanueva collected 16 points, 13 rebounds and four blocks while Josh Boone added eight points and a season-high 16 boards.

"Quite frankly, we played Notre Dame last time, I think Emeka had 15, 16 rebounds," Calhoun said. "We won the rebounding battle by 23 or 24 and we did the same thing without Emeka, which speaks volumes for what these two kids did."

UConn held a commanding 53-32 edge on the glass against an Irish team that also was without its main big man, Torin Francis, who is out for the season with his own back injury.

The Huskies did an excellent job defending Thomas for the second straight meeting as the Irish's best player was 7-of-21 from the floor for 19 points. Thomas shot 6-of-23 in a 61-50 loss at UConn on February 21.

"I'm past the stage of worrying if my shots are falling or not," Thomas said. "I'm just going to try to do whatever I have to do for my team."

Notre Dame must wait and see if it has done enough to merit an at-large berth to the NCAA Tournament. The Fighting Irish closed by winning seven of 10 games after a rough start, but still may be headed to the National Invitation Tournament.

"I'm realistic," Notre Dame coach Mike Brey said. "I also talked to our guys about both tournaments in the locker room, to be mentally prepared, and we'd be honored to play in either one of them."

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