This is what everyone remembered the Holy War to be: a game in which records and rankings didn't matter, in which big players and not-so-big players made big plays, in which the action in the final seconds could be discussed for weeks and months.

Villanova and St. Joseph's competed last night in a game that looked the same as some of their memorable Palestra battles used to be. The tension was thick at the Pavilion as the teams exchanged the lead four times in the final 85 seconds.

You figured it would come down to free throws, and it did. Scottie Reynolds hit the two deciding ones with 4.8 seconds to play to lead the 15th-ranked Wildcats to a 59-56 Big Five victory over the Hawks before a drained sellout crowd of 6,500.

"Well, that's what everybody pays for; that's what everybody remembers a Big Five game to be," Villanova coach Jay Wright said. "That was a classic. When I was a fan, I loved them. Now, as a coach, I don't love the classics."

The Hawks (4-5 overall, 0-1 Big Five) gave the Wildcats (9-1, 2-0) everything they could handle, running out to a 35-26 halftime lead on 56 percent shooting and maintaining that same nine-point advantage five minutes into the second half.

It wasn't until Villanova put the ball in reserve guard Reggie Redding's hands down the stretch that the game started to turn the home team's way. With his team trailing by six with five minutes left, Redding, known more for his defense, knocked down jumpers from the free-throw line and from the right elbow to spark a 9-2 run.

The second basket, with 2 minutes, 56 seconds remaining, gave 'Nova a 53-52 lead, its first advantage since 13-11 way back in the first half. Redding later sank two free throws to restore the Wildcats' lead at 55-54 with 59 seconds left.

"Reggie was just awesome," Wright said. "He does everything for us whenever we need him, wherever we need him. He's the smartest guy on our team, and he's gutty."

Two free throws by Ahmad Nivins, who had 16 points and eight rebounds, put St. Joe's back in front, 56-55. After Redding missed on the Wildcats' next possession, Darren Govens had the chance to put his team ahead by three.

But Govens, a 78 percent free-throw shooter, missed the front end of a one-and-one with 16.9 seconds left. Villanova called a time-out and got the ball into the hands of Reynolds, who drove into the lane and collided with the Hawks' Idris Hilliard. A blocking foul was called.

"That's the greatest thing you can give a player, the ball in your hands at the end of the game," Reynolds said. "[Wright] has done it for me quite a bit. To give me the ball in a situation like that and just let me go, I appreciate it."

Reynolds gave 'Nova the lead for good - the final two of his team-high 18 points. Dante Cunningham sank two insurance free throws after intercepting Hilliard's inbounds pass, finishing with 14 points.

Coach Phil Martelli said his Hawks "unraveled a little bit" in the second half, when they shot only 35 percent and committed eight turnovers.

"It was a terrific atmosphere," he said. "But the turnovers - we had one standing in the backcourt, so I didn't have them properly prepared. But it's certainly a step up."

Govens led St. Joseph's with 18 points, all on three-point baskets.

Wright didn't hesitate in saying that the Hawks deserved a better result.

"They played great," he said. "They played better than us tonight. . . . They deserved to win. We just gutted it out. Thank God we played at home. Our crowd was awesome and made it a difficult place to play. I was very proud of our leadership."

You could be sure that Wright and everyone else inside the usually more sedate Pavilion had some ringing in their ears for quite a few hours after the game.

"You can watch a Big East game here," Wright said, "and there's no Big East game that we play here that's going to be any more intense, or the crowd will be like this. The Big Five is good for us in preparing for the Big East."

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