THIS FELT right. Favorite in trouble. Underdog playing great. Fans silent.

Favorite digging in. Underdog holding on. Fans ready to blow the roof off. Bodies flying. Timeouts being called on every dead ball.

A missed free throw. A block/charge call. Made free throws. A steal. More made free throws. Buzzer goes off.

That is the Holy War, not these blowouts where the favorite gets the lead, the underdog collapses and everybody wonders what this Villanova-Saint Joseph's thing really is about.

This was what it is about. St. Joe's, a double-digit underdog at the Ski Lodge, led for 29 minutes, led by nine at halftime, led for every television timeout but the last one, still led with 16 seconds left. Then, Darrin Govens, a 78 percent foul shooter who had made six threes, missed a free throw.

The door opened one final time for the Wildcats. And they went right on through.

The block/charge call went 'Nova's way. And Scottie Reynolds did not hit the rim on his two free throws. Dante Cunningham stole a long pass, made two more foul shots and that was that.

But it wasn't, really. It was so much more than Villanova 59, St. Joe's 56. It was why the Big 5 still matters more than a half-century after it began. Watch what the players put into it and you understand why it matters. Enter the silent losing locker room and you really understand.

"We had them,'' St. Joe's senior Tasheed Carr said. "One stop away. They're a good team. I'll give them that, but we're not into moral victories. We're a better team, this night and any other night.''

Listen to the coaches and you get why it matters.

"St. Joe played great,'' Villanova coach Jay Wright said. "To come into this building, they played better than us tonight. They did. They played a better game. They deserved it, but we just gutted it out.''

The Wildcats did exactly that. This group is far more tough than pretty. Tough, however, wins a lot.

When the game's co-leading scorer was reminded that one miss doesn't negate everything positive that went down and doesn't mean that there won't be more basketball games, Govens said: "It's like a fight. You box and you win every round. You get to the last round and get knocked out. It's painful.''

On a night when the Hawks hit nearly 50 percent from the arc, had 15 assists on their 21 field goals and more than a few highlight plays from star Ahmad Nivins (the blocked shot/spike off the board followed by a leaping block seconds later and a flying dunk as a trailer come to mind), the Wildcats simply refused to fold.

The 'Cats got back by stopping St. Joe's on 10 consecutive possessions. They got six late and very huge points from Reggie Redding, who had not scored. They won most of the 50/50 balls in the final minutes after not winning many in the first half when St. Joe's played the game so beautifully. And they made their last 12 free throws, each one bigger than the last.

"They turned it up, but we knew that they were going to turn it up,'' Hawks coach Phil Martelli said.

Martelli knew there were positives, but he explained how his team had missed five calls coming out of timeouts, how it just stopped in the backcourt and got a 10-second call. He felt the emotion of the game, but, thinking like a coach, he saw the basketball plays that were missed.

The Hawks' big three of Nivins, Govens and Carr finished with 44 points. The Wildcats' big three of Reynolds, Cunningham and Dwayne Anderson (now back in the starting lineup and a defensive stopper) had 42. It was just that close.

When Cunningham was told how much this game was like this series used to be, he just smiled, shook his head slowly and said, "That was something.''

It was. It was never beautiful in the second half, but, as you could see the lead disappearing, as the clock went too slowly for one team, too quickly for the other and then seemed to freeze in the final 2 minutes, you wondered about the possibilities of how it might end.

By the way, those last 2 minutes actually seemed to take longer than the first half, 38 minutes of real time with two free throws and just six personal fouls.

St. Joe's had one more rebound, one more foul and one more field goal. Villanova had one more steal, two more offensive rebounds and three more points.

This game is never supposed to be one team getting 100 one year and the other getting a 40-9 lead the next. This is a game you are supposed to feel for 40 minutes. Fourteen nights before Christmas, this was a Holy War that could be felt from the floor to the benches to the stands, right through the television to the audience watching on ESPN2. This was Villanova-St. Joe's. *

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