Stuck in an offensive malaise, Fairfield Prep faced a six-point deficit and a bundle of pressure in the final minutes of regulation in Tuesday's Class LL boys basketball semifinals.

Unable to hit shots with any consistency, the Jesuits challenged their opponent, Hillhouse, to close it out at the free-throw line.

The plan worked, and the Jesuits are headed back to the state final because of it.

The fifth-seeded Academics finished just 14-for-30 from the line, including 3-for-13 in the fourth quarter and overtime, and Prep rallied for a thrilling 59-57 win before 1,800 fans at Shelton High to return to the Class LL finals.

"That was the difference, that was the game," Hillhouse coach Renard Sutton said. "They played hard, we played hard, but at the end of the day, championship teams win the game on the free-throw line.

"Tonight, we didn't do a good job."

Hillhouse's (21-5) struggles were Prep's gain as LL's top seed held an 18-10 scoring edge in the final four minutes of regulation and overtime. The Jesuits, who were 30-for-46 from the free-throw line, trailed for three quarters before retaking the lead, 51-49, on two Ryan Foley free throws in the first minute of overtime.

With their third win against Hillhouse this year and eighth in 11 meetings over the past three seasons, the Jesuits (24-2) clinched a spot in Saturday's LL final against No. 2 Westhill at Mohegan Sun Arena at 8:15 p.m. It will be the fourth trip to the final in five years for the Jesuits, who last won a state title in 1997.

"It was a gut-check," Prep coach Leo Redgate said. "We really, really focused on defense leading to offense. The only way we were going to get back in the game is if we got stops."

The Jesuits trailed 33-22 at halftime, but outscored Hillhouse 12-2 in the third quarter. Although it was tied on three occasions in the second half, and Hillhouse couldn't take care of business at the charity stripe, the Jesuits failed to regain the lead.

"They were getting to the bucket pretty easy; they're a great team," said Prep guard Rich Kelly, who scored a game-high 17 points and hit 14-of-17 attempts from the line. "We just thought we could limit them by putting them on the foul line."

Hillhouse regained a 49-48 lead in overtime on a Joe Kasperzyk free throw, but the Academics missed their first seven shots of the extra session. Those struggles came after a 15-point second half.

Guard Isaiah Lewis led Hillhouse with 14 points, and Troy Walters scored 11.

Trying to protect a 47-41 lead late in the fourth quarter, Hillhouse missed the front end of three straight one-and-ones to keep Prep alive. The Jesuits whittled the deficit down to 48-46, and Foley tied it with a runner in the lane in the final minute of regulation.

Guard Thomas Nolan had 13 points and forward Pat Harding scored 12, but there was no secret how the game was won.

"I honestly don't think we had any other chance," Redgate said, "than going offense, defense and making them earn it from the line."

dbonjour@ctpost.com; twitter.com/DougBonjour