Let's start out by saying that the Big 5 as a whole benefitted from this game.
, and St. Joe's couldn't seal the deal on what would likely have been the Atlantic 10's biggest win since Xavier beat Memphis in Puerto Rico.
But the last few Holy Wars have been blowouts, and the Wildcats' rout at the Pavilion two years ago was so bad that ESPN didn't televise last season's game at the Palestra.
This game was well-played from beginning to end, and more importantly, was close from beginning to end.
St. Joe's came out with an intensity and focus that was far beyond anything we've seen from this season, and took the game to Villanova right away. Ahmad Nivins was assertive on offense and defense, and Darrin Govens shot the lights out from the perimeter.
The Wildcats, on the other hand, very much looked like a team that took the floor 44 hours after getting pounded inside by a Texas team full of size and athleticism.
But in the second half, Villanova sharpened its focus and started to play at the level we knew it could. Dante Cunningham stepped up, Dwayne Anderson provided a boost in his first start of the season, Corey Stokes hit a big three and Scottie Reynolds conducted the offense as both scorer and distributor.
And while the Hawks' offense - Nivins in particular - went silent for long stretches of the second half, it's no coincidence that the Wildcats tied the game with five consecutive points from free throws.
Villanova did not go to the line at all in the game until almost three minutes after halftime. But once they did, they put points on the board and changed the style of the game. what had been a wide-open affair turned into the kind of scrappy, deliberate contest that Big 5 games traditionally are.
St. Joe's refused to go away, however. Nivins got back into the game late in the half, and Garrett Williamson hit a clutch jumper from the corner to make it 52-49 with four minutes remaining. Exactly a minute later, Reggie Redding replied with a nifty shot of his own, and the race to the finish was on.
Finally, Scottie Reynolds took matters into his own hands. His drive through a jam-packed lane with four seconds to go drew a foul from Idris Hilliard, and Reynolds hit both free throws to give Villanova a 57-56 lead.
To me, that goes down as the signature play of the game - and the foul call was absolutely right, by the way. Jim Burr's refereeing crew let most of the little stuff go tonight, and overall I thought they did a very good job. I don't remember any calls that I or the chatters on the blog thought they got wrong.
If anyone on the floor made a mistake, it was the St. Joe's players for getting the two late inbounds passes wrong. On the first, there weren't any Hawks anywhere near Bryant Irwin, and he ended up throwing the ball right into Dante Cunningham's hands. On the second, the pass went the length of the court and into the lane instead of to the perimeter, forcing Ahmad Nivins to jack up an off-balance shot from the baseline that was well inside the arc.
I suspect, based on previous years of following the Hawks, that some of their fans will find reason to criticize what they saw. But I thought St. Joe's played an incredibly good game tonight and should be praised for it.
I do, however, have one big complaint. Coming out of the last media timeout, ESPN color analyst Steve Lavin took a shot at the soft pretzel he got from the Pavilion concession stand.
I realize it's not the Palestra, and as you all know I think the Palestra's soft pretzels are the best anywhere. I also realize that Lavin also said that he expected the pretzel to be better given the ones he'd eaten elsewhere in Philadelphia.
But I absolutely will not stand for insulting soft pretzels at a Big 5 game on national television, regardless of venue.