Jay Wright and the Villanova fans in the Wachovia Center crowd of 9,212 could not believe that their Wildcats were getting pounded so soundly by Louisiana State, at least for the first 31 minutes or so tonight.

"They had us. We were down. We had lost our confidence and that surprised me," said Wright, the Villanova coach, who watched the Tigers' big men repel the Wildcats in the paint time and time again.

But Wright then unleashed his secret weapon, 6-foot freshman guard Malcolm Grant, who personally led his team back from a 21-point deficit and missed a shot that Dante Cunningham put back in for the game-winner, lifting the Wildcats to an improbable 68-67 victory over LSU.

The Tigers (5-3) dominated for most of the night in this Big East/SEC Invitational matchup, with their tall and athletic inside players making life miserable for the No. 25 Wildcats (6-1). LSU finished with 14 blocked shots, most of them coming while the visitors built a 54-33 lead with 8 minutes, 50 seconds to play.

But Grant made things happen after he reentered the game for good with 8:40 to play. He scored all 18 of his points in the final 6:52.

"We didn't come to play," Wright said. "That's one thing we take great pride in. This guy [Grant] just put us on his back and carried us."

Grant really got into gear after the Wildcats went down by 64-49 with 3:06 to play on Marcus Thornton's follow-up basket, which turned out to be LSU's last field goal of the game.

Grant converted a four-point play, then knocked down a three-ball on Villanova's next possession. The Tigers were losing their cool, victimized by turnovers and missed free throws.

Grant, who sank 9 of 10 free throws, got three in one trip to the line with 1:05 to play, cutting the deficit to 67-66. The Tigers worked for a good shot, but Garrett Temple missed a three-point try with 31 seconds left.

Scottie Reynolds, who had a terrible game offensively (1 of 8 from the field, 2 of 6 from the free-throw line, four points), pulled down the last of his eight rebounds and Villanova held the ball before calling a time-out with 13.1 seconds to play.

The ball found its way into the hands of Grant, who threw up a wild shot that hit heavily off the backboard. But Cunningham, who finished with 16 points and 12 rebounds, was free to grab the rebound and put Villanova in front for the only time in the game.

"Every day we do the same thing," Cunningham said. "We go out every day and we always know who's going to shoot. When the shot goes up, I crash the boards. I got it and put it back in."

Asked if this was one of his best games ever, Grant replied, "I'm not really worried about that. We got the win. I got lucky and I was able to hit some shots. I know we didn't play the way Coach wants us to play, but we pulled out the win."

Early on, the Wildcats had no answers for LSU's defense. The perimeter players kept them from attempting three-pointers - Grant connected on all three of the Villanova baskets from beyond the arc - and 6-foot-10 Anthony Randolph and 6-11 Chris Johnson patrolled inside.

Randolph, a highly touted freshman, finished with 12 points, six rebounds and four blocks, but he fouled out with 4:08 to play. The Wildcats outscored the Tigers by 21-5 after he went to the bench.

Villanova wound up shooting 33.9 percent for the game but outrebounded the Tigers, 43-39. LSU, which shot 42.9 percent, was led by Thornton with 15 points and 13 rebounds.

The Wildcats trailed by 35-24 at the half and looked to be all but finished after a 1-of-9 stretch midway through the second half helped the Tigers boost their lead to 21.

But the Wildcats turned it around. It was almost as if Wright had trouble believing his team had won, even as he sat in the interview room and tried to explain it all.

"That was incredible," he said. "We were terrible. LSU deserved to win that game. But we played with great heart. Malcolm was incredible, but that's not a surprise to us. But I'll take it. That's all I'll say."

Contact staff writer Joe Juliano at 215-854-4494 or jjuliano@phillynews.com.