ONCE, THERE would have been a time when Villanova's accomplishment was greeted with court-storming fans, clever rollouts and a colorful rainstorm of streamers in the air.

The Wildcats would have been celebrated as champions, feted for winning the bragging-rights battle in a city where loyalties turned friendly neighbors into bitter enemies.

But when the Wildcats put the final touches on their 101-93 victory over Temple last night, the questions were about putting the win in the context of Villanova and the loss in the framework of Temple.

The fact that Villanova became the first team in Big 5 history to win 13 consecutive City Series games was something of an afterthought.

Jay Wright gave proper and genuine props. He was reared on the Big 5, a suburban kid who made the treks to the Palestra and can rattle off the names of the greats almost as quickly as he can name his three children.

And Scottie Reynolds spoke with appreciation, the Virginia kid explaining how he came to understand the Big 5 in his first city game against Penn a year ago.

But that was it, a touch, a glancing blow to a record that puts Villanova (7-1) above a history lesson's worth of great basketball players and teams.

"I think we talked about it a lot," Temple coach Fran Dunphy said. "I know they wrote on the board that they wanted to prevent this from happening. I have a lot of respect for the Big 5 and all the teams in it and I have a great respect for Villanova. They've got it going on now and it's up to La Salle and Saint Joseph's to stop them."

The reality is, in the omnipresent age of league affiliations and computer rankings, the Big 5 is little more than a quaint notion. There are Philly kids on the roster - Villanova had three last night, Temple five - but these kids were raised on cross-country AAU ball, not playground hoops, and reared on ESPN highlights of Duke-North Carolina, not pop's stories about the Big 5.

They care insomuch that they are supposed to care and insomuch that they care about every game, but it is unfair to expect them to truly understand a tradition that only has been alive in spirit during their lifetimes.

"Coming in last year, the UPenn game was my first Big 5 game," said Reynolds, who rebounded from a four-point night against LSU with a team-high 27 points, nine assists and six rebounds. "It was an amazing experience, so I'm kind of starting to understand it and value it and appreciate it a lot more."

Big 5 games still matter. They matter to the alums and the fans who remember the good ol' days, to the current students who like to tip a beer back with their city friends and say, "My club beat yours."

And they still matter on the court, just differently. Now they count because they remain the unpredictable 40 minutes of mayhem they always were and offer great lessons for teams that need to learn how to adjust on the fly.

For Villanova last night, that was learning about how to handle success. A game after staging an epic rally from 21 points down to beat LSU, the Wildcats learned how LSU must have felt. Villanova led, 84-60, with 6 minutes to play, the only question remaining appeared to be just how horrific of a loss the Owls were going to suffer.

And then the walkover became a growing disaster, as Temple went on a 16-3 run to make it 87-74 with 3:08 to play. It never quite felt like the frantic fiasco that LSU suffered on Thursday night, in part because the Wildcats made their free throws at the end (17-for-18), but it wasn't pretty. The 24-point lead evaporated to as little as 10 with just over a minute to play as the Wildcats lost their poise and their minds, dribbling as if the ball were on fire to commit silly turnovers and forgetting to play defense.

The defense made Wright grimace the most. The coach has staked his Villanova reputation on defense. The 'Cats' offense is, how shall we say it? Freewheeling. That's the carrot Wright offers in return for a demand that his teams play hard on the opposite end.

But defense is the hardest thing for a young team to learn and with a roster that sports just two juniors, these 'Cats are still climbing the upward portion of the learning curve.

"We've got good players and we're trying to teach them, but you've got to swallow it," Wright said of a defense that gave up 93 points and allowed the Owls to shoot 51 percent for the game, 43 from the arc. "It's tough to watch, but you just know you've got to live through it.

"We're playing defense like I thought we would, which is not good. But we're scoring better than we thought we would. When you emphasize defense so much, you're not good offensively. Luckily these kids are pretty good on their own. They're talented offensively, so they're carrying us right now."

Carrying them right into the city record books, if anyone wants to talk about it. *