So it looks as if the questions about how good a young basketball team from Villanova might be as it enters its Big East schedule won't be answered until the Wildcats play some games in the conference.

They played good defense for the second consecutive game last night, but were inconsistent offensively. Still, they were good enough to defeat La Salle, 71-58, in a Big Five game at the Pavilion, stretching their record City Series win streak to 14 games.

The 18th-ranked Wildcats (10-1, 3-0 Big Five) begin Big East play Thursday night on the road against DePaul. Based on last night's game, they go into that game with some good signs and maybe a concern or two.

One week after holding Columbia to 35.7 percent shooting, the Wildcats limited the Explorers (4-7, 0-1) to 38.2 percent from the field and forced them into 22 turnovers, scoring 27 points off the miscues.

Offensively, though, they were streaky. Their biggest streak was their worst one, going one for their first 14 from the field in the opening 91/2 minutes of the second half. They shot 34.6 percent in the second half and 43.3 percent for the game.

"We can bring guys off the bench that can score a lot," coach Jay Wright said. "So I really don't worry about that yet. We still need to get better defensively."

The defense helped the Wildcats withstand a second-half cold streak. Even while missing 13 of 14 shots, they lost only three points off their 43-30 lead because the Explorers made just 4 of 12 field-goal attempts and committed six turnovers, keeping them from mounting a comeback punch.

La Salle cut the deficit to single digits just once in the half, at 60-51 on a free throw by Jerrell Williams with 3 minutes, 14 seconds to play. But Scottie Reynolds hit both ends of a one-and-one and drained a three-ball on back-to-back possessions to end any suspense.

"I think we showed a lot of poise out there," said Reynolds, who started 1 for 8 from the field but still led all players with 19 points. "It was physical, but we played each and every possession. Everybody had a great attitude and a lot of energy. As we go into the Big East, that's something we can take out of this game."

Freshman Corey Fisher added 18 points and five assists and did a fine job in the second half on La Salle sharpshooter Darnell Harris, who finished with 16 points but only two in the final 20 minutes.

Despite the result, La Salle coach John Giannini was delighted with his team's effort in the second half. The Explorers outshot and outrebounded the Wildcats, forced 10 turnovers, and tied them, 28-28, on the scoreboard.

"Every time they expanded the lead, we had an answer for it," Giannini said.

The Explorers have one more game, Saturday at Florida State, before they open their Atlantic Ten Conference schedule on Jan. 9. Giannini is encouraged by their recent stretch of games, including narrow losses to nationally ranked Mississippi and DePaul.

"We showed the ability to compete against good teams, and that's a starting point," he said.

Wright said before the game that a further examination of sophomore center Casiem Drummond revealed a stress fracture in his right ankle. No timetable has been set for his return.

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