VILLANOVA WON a game it was supposed to win.

Nothing more, or less.

If you were looking for anything resembling redeeming value, you really need to look elsewhere.

But this is what the Wildcats' season has become. The conventional wisdom suggests that they need to win four in a row, something they haven't done since December, to have any chance to make the NCAA Tournament field for the fourth straight March. Which is something they haven't done in a little more than 2 decades.

Last night's 72-59 victory over South Florida at the Pavilion was the first step. It isn't going to get them any bonus points in the all-imporant Ratings Percentage Index, but at this point the math is pretty basic: Any loss before the next week's Big East semifinals would probably be fatal.

It was their regular-season finale at the Pavilion. But for a team with no seniors, and with the students on midsemester break, the atmosphere meter wasn't running very high on the Main Line. It was hard to blame anyone.

The Bulls (12-18, 3-14 Big East) had lost their first 23 road games since joining the conference, before Saturday's two-point breakthrough at Rutgers. Which might say as much about Rutgers as USF. Then again, Rutgers drilled Villanova at home back in January. Just in case you'd forgotten.

The Wildcats (18-11, 8-9), with their RPI hovering around 60, now head up to Providence (14-14, 5-11) on Saturday. For all you nonhistory majors, they haven't had a whole bunch of success up there, even with some of their better teams. Yet again, this time failure is no longer an option.

Mathematically, they could still finish anywhere from sixth to 11th in the standings, although ninth or 10th is more likely. So bone up on those tiebreakers.

"We always say, 'Next game,' " said coach Jay Wright. "But, yeah, we talk about the fact that it's the end of the season and we probably have to win a lot of games. But we have to win the next one. That's the only way we're going to do it. If you look at [USF's] last five games, they've been playing good. It was a tough game to play. Our guys played tough.

"We're very aware of the big picture. But it doesn't matter unless we win the next game. We know the situation we're in. We're going to play this out. It's been a wild season. But we haven't given in. We're going to ride this out as long as we can."

The best thing to come out of these 40 minutes was the reappearance of junior forward Shane Clark (15 points), who was the team's second-leading scorer heading into the conference portion of the schedule. Then, he pretty much vanished. Wright said he was suffering from "fatigue." But all the medical tests came back negative. So who knows for sure? Maybe he just hit a wall. Whatever, his absence, tangibly or otherwise, certainly didn't make matters easier for a young group who needed as much help as it could muster.

The 'Cats led at the half, 35-21. By that point, Clark already had eight points in 12 minutes off the bench. He'd only scored eight points in a game once since Dec. 22. The other time was against Saint Joseph's on Feb. 4, which almost doesn't count given the circumstances.

He added seven more after intermission in another 10 minutes. He shot 7-for-11 from the field, which included a couple of missed dunks. He had seven rebounds. And looked like, well, his old self.

"I was just trying to be aggressive," Clark said. "I know I've been [out of it]. I really wanted to come back and do all the dirty work, whatever's needed. I [actually] felt better [for] other games. I'll take the shot when I can. I have to be confident."

Clark even made a three-pointer for the first time since since the St. Joe's debacle. He'd been 0-for-5 from long range since.

"I'm loving it," Wright gushed. "He's battled through whatever it is. It's just amazing. You could hear our guys going, 'That's our Shiz.' That's what they call him. He looked like he got it back. We've seen it in practice. It's so nice to see.

"He's rested, instead of being worn out. I hope he finishes strong."

Another good sign was the return of center Casiem Drummond, who missed the last three games due to an ongoing battle with a stress fracture in his right ankle. He only played 12 minutes before fouling out, but had seven boards. He also was part of the reason that USF's Kentrell Gransberry, who averages 16.5, was held to a season-low five points in 23 minutes before he fouled out.

"It felt good to be back in there again," Drummond said. "I'm not trying to be a superhero. I'm going to defend, rebound, anything for the team, whether I play 4 minutes or 24."

It was a six-point game with 11 1/2 minutes to go. And things were getting a bit restless. But a 22-5 spurt put it away, even though the Bulls got to within 11 with a minute showing.

Dominique Jones, the leading freshman scorer in the conference, had 29, two shy of his best and 13 above his average. But he needed 21 shots. USF was 4-for-23 from the arc, and not much better from closer range.

It wasn't very pretty. But it didn't have to be. It only had to be a win. *