It did not seem possible that the average margin of the previous seven Villanova-St. Joseph's games had been 17.1 points.
The Holy War was put on view the way some of the legendary Palestra battles used to be, and the tension was thick down the stretch tonight at the Pavilion.
But the game came down to free throws, and Scottie Reynolds hit the two deciding ones with 4.8 seconds to play, giving the 15th-ranked Wildcats a 59-56 Big Five victory over the Hawks before a drained sellout crowd of 6,500.
Reynolds, who finished with 18 points, made his shots after St. Joe's Darren Govens missed the front end of a one-and-one with 16.9 seconds to play. He drove the lane and crashed into the Hawks' Idris Hillard. A blocking foul was called.
Dante Cunningham then intercepted the inbounds pass and drained two insurance free throws with 2.5 seconds to play. He finished with 14 points for the Wildcats (9-1 overall, 2-0 Big Five).
Govens finished with 18 points for the Hawks (4-5, 0-1) and Ahmad Nivins contributed 14.
The Wildcats used a 9-2 run to rally from a six-point deficit and gain the advantage late. And the architect was Reggie Redding, normally known more for his defense than his ability to drill the outside shot.
Redding nailed a jumper from the foul line. Then with 'Nova down by one, he curled off a screen, took a pass from Reynolds and drained a 16-footer from the elbow, giving the Wildcats a 53-52 lead with 2 minutes, 56 seconds remaining.
After Nivins' two free throws enabled St. Joe's to get the lead back with 1:25 to play, Redding answered with a pair of freebies at the 59-second mark, and Nivins swung the seesaw back in the Hawks' direction with two foul shots with 44.6 seconds left to make it 56-55.
The Wildcats trailed by 35-26 at the half, and remained in a nine-point hole at 41-32 on a Nivins follow-up basket with 15:13 to play. But the Hawks went the next seven minutes without scoring, failing on 10 consecutive possessions, and Villanova tallied nine straight to tie it up.
Reynolds finished off the run with three free throws to make it a 41-41 game with 10:57 remaining. The Wildcats had four chances to take the lead after tying, but they went air ball-turnover-turnover-miss.
Given some life, the Hawks regained the lead and broke their drought on Tasheed Carr's three-ball from in front of his bench. Govens provided a tenuous cushion for St. Joseph's by sandwiching a pair of three-pointers around two turnovers, and the Hawks led by 50-44 at the five-minute mark before Nova made its push.
The Hawks connected on 11 of 16 shots from the field over the final 121/2 minutes of the first half and went into the locker room past a stunned Villanova crowd holding a nine-point lead.
The Wildcats came out for the second half looking to make a run, and Cunningham hit their first two baskets to make it a five-point game.
Dwayne Anderson, making his first start of the season after his comeback from a stress reaction in his foot, tried to fuel a 'Nova rally with defense. He posted back-to-back steals, leading to layups by Reynolds and himself.
One day earlier, Hawks coach Phil Martelli had complained that his offense had been running plays so poorly that he had gone back to emphasizing passing and catching.
But the St. Joe's offense on display in the first half was conducted with precision, with good cuts and solid screens. The Hawks finished the half with 12 assists on their 14 field goals, with Carr and Garrett Williamson accounting for five apiece, against just five turnovers.