Villanova started out last night as if it had no desire to allow former assistant coach Joe Jones, now the head coach at Columbia, to enjoy his homecoming at the Pavilion.

The 23d-ranked Wildcats held the Lions to seven points in the first 12 minutes while cruising to a 22-point lead, but somehow lost their offensive mojo in the second half to make it more stressful than they would have liked.

Still, while the offense struggled in Villanova's 72-56 victory, the defense brought a smile to the face of coach Jay Wright, especially after it established season bests for points allowed and field-goal percentage defense (35.7 percent).

"I thought we benefited from our work on defense this week," Wright said. "I didn't think we had a bad effort. I didn't think we were sharp, but we spent so much time working on defense this week that we weren't as good offensively. But I'm not worried about offense with this team. This team has got to get better defensively, and I thought we made strides."

This was a tough week for the Wildcats (9-1), whose practice time was limited because of final exams.

"It was a battle on and off the court," said forward Dante Cunningham, who pulled down 12 rebounds for his third double-figure effort off the boards in his last four games. "After you battle with the books, you come right in and battle on the court every day."

The on-court battles this week had to do with defense, a matter that has become urgent with only one game remaining on Villanova's schedule - Saturday's home Big Five matchup with La Salle - before the start of the Big East season.

That was fine with the Wildcats, who entered last night's game 13th among Big East teams in scoring defense (70.8 points) and next to last in field-goal percentage defense (44.9 percent).

"I like to get excited about defense," said forward Shane Clark, who led 'Nova with 15 points. "I always like to work on my defense, and I try to get my teammates into it. I love doing that. I guess practice was fun for me the whole week."

The defense was sharp at the start. The Wildcats scored the first 12 points of the game and held the Lions (4-7) without a point until K.J. Matsui drained a three-pointer with 15 minutes, 44 seconds left in the half.

Villanova made 10 of its first 15 shots from the floor and limited Columbia to a 3-for-17 start. When Clark hit a short jumper in the lane with 8:45 to play, the Wildcats had a 29-7 lead.

"I thought I was going to run to the bus after the first five minutes," Jones said. "But we competed toward the end of the first half and in the second half. We had more energy, and we were getting more confident."

Villanova led by 21 early in the second half but cooled off considerably. The Lions whittled the deficit behind the shooting of Matsui (19 points).

But the Wildcats suddenly made four in a row to end the suspense. Scottie Reynolds had a layup in that run and finished with 14 points.

Villanova center Casiem Drummond missed his second straight game with tendinitis in his right foot.