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Villanova - Wildcats had no prayer, but wait. . .

Standing in the hallway outside the Villanova locker room, a smiling Rev. Rob Hagan yelled into his cell phone. "I was down to my last bead," the Wildcats' team chaplain said.

Standing in the hallway outside the Villanova locker room, a smiling Rev. Rob Hagan yelled into his cell phone.

"I was down to my last bead," the Wildcats' team chaplain said.

And there it was, the only legitimate explanation to what had just happened on the Wachovia Center court: a preacher man hoarding his rosary beads.

There is, after all, no this-worldly explanation for a team that played as if it were allergic to the basketball for 37 minutes, that trailed by 21 with 8 minutes to play and heard boos on its homecourt walking away with a victory.

Even more unbelievable, Villanova's 68-67 victory over LSU in the inaugural Big East/SEC Invitational last night bore out a favorite coaching cliché. You do, indeed, have to play every possession.

"They're hitting every shot and blocking every one of ours, and you look at the score and we're down 21 and it's like, man I don't know," Villanova forward Dante Cunningham said. "But we kept saying in the huddle, just one more stop, just one more stop."

Cunningham wound up the ultimate hero, putting back a Malcolm Grant miss with 6 seconds left for the Wildcats' first lead of the night, which also just so happened to be the final score.

But fittingly in this improbable victory, the MVP trophy goes to the most improbable player. Grant is "Malcolm in the Middle" to the two more famous Wildcat freshmen, Corey Fisher and Corey Stokes. One is the New Jersey Player of the Year, the other a McDonald's All-America.

Grant, he's just the kid who injected life into his team and virtually won the game for the 'Cats. Grant scored 14 of his 18 points in the pivotal 3-minute flurry that won the game, taking advantage of LSU's preoccupation with Scottie Reynolds to take open shots.

More important, he made them. And on a night in which his teammates were a woeful 14-for-24 at the free-throw line, Grant was 9-for-10, hitting eight in that decisive run.

"I just try to come in and give energy to my team," Grant said. "My teammates are always telling me that's what I do."

The team needed it. In 37 minutes, the Wildcats looked uncharacteristically lethargic and sloppy. LSU blocked 14 shots on the defensive side and took wide-open shots on the other end, stretching an 11-point halftime lead into what seemed like a mountainous 21-point hole.

The 'Cats (6-1) had no one to blame but themselves. Sure, the Tigers (5-3) played well, but Villanova played foolishly, forcing the ball to the hoop despite not getting the contact calls they were looking for and despite the Tigers' swat-a-thon.

"I was disappointed, but I knew with this group we were going to have this kind of game," coach Jay Wright said.

He didn't know he'd ever see this kind of finish.

Down 64-49, Grant swished a three-pointer and LSU's Marcus Thornton was called for the foul. Grant made the rare four-point play and after an LSU turnover, came right back with another three.

Suddenly, the fans who were heading to the exits stopped halfway up the staircase and stared. Grant swiped a steal on the other end and Reggie Redding scored an easy layup and, just like that, insurmountable was a makable, 64-58.

The play of the game went not to Grant but, ironically, to Reynolds. Having a game like he's never seen before and hopes to never see again - he had just four points, missed four free throws and heard the catcalls when he tanked two freebies on a technical foul - Reynolds chased down LSU's Garrett Temple from behind, poking the ball away in what should have been a breakaway dunk.

In the mad scramble for the ball, Cunningham had the presence of the mind to call a timeout when he gained control.

"They did a great job on him defensively," Wright said of Reynolds. "But he didn't stop doing the little things."

Grant was fouled on the ensuing possession to make it 66-63 and after Chris Johnson hit just one of two free throws, Grant launched a three. The shot missed short, but the guard was fouled. He calmly sank all three to put Villanova within one.

"In practice, coach always tells us to imagine we have pressure on ourselves," Grant said. "That's what I did."

Temple missed a decent look at a three for LSU and the long rebound came right to Reynolds. After a timeout, Grant pushed the ball to the hoop but the shot sailed over the rim. And right into Cunningham's hands.

"That's the thing about this team," Cunningham said. "People tell us how young we are, but coach always tells us about the potential we have. I don't think a lot of people expected to win this game at this stage of the season, but it definitely shows you we have a lot of weapons on this team that people don't know about."

It wasn't clear whether Cunningham was talking about Grant or his priest.

Gamecocks prevail

* Devan Downey scored 21 points and Mike Holmes had 12 to lead South Carolina to a 68-67 win over Providence in the first game. The Gamecocks (5-4) held on even though they had a nearly 6-minute stretch without a field goal late in the second half that allowed the Friars (5-3) to knock a double-digit deficit down to one.

Weyinmi Efejuku was fouled with 0.2 seconds left on a driving layup and the Friars trailing by two. But Efejuku made only one of two free throws. *