The last four times St. Joseph's and Villanova met in what has become known as the Holy War, the average margin of victory for the winner was 16.7 points per game.

Last night, in a Big Five contest at the Pavilion, that trend was interrupted.

Thanks to a pair of free throws by Villanova guard Scottie Reynolds that put his team ahead to stay with 4.8 seconds left, the Wildcats squeezed out a 59-56 thriller before a crowd of 6,500.

After Reynolds gave his team a one-point lead, teammate Dante Cunningham provided the final margin with a pair of free throws that followed his steal of an inbounds pass.

"It was a welcome opportunity to compete against a terrific team, a great program, and in a great atmosphere," said St. Joe's coach Phil Martelli, whose team took the lead at 13-11 and did not relinquish it until Villanova's Reggie Redding put the Wildcats up by 53-52 with 2 minutes, 56 seconds to go. "Unfortunately, we unraveled. Today, we just were not good enough."

Last night's outcome was the closest game between the teams since February 2004, when visiting St. Joe's prevailed by 74-67.

When the teams met last Feb. 4, it happened to be good timing for St. Joe's and not-so-good timing for Villanova.

The Hawks entered that contest playing well, with 10 wins in their previous 11 outings, and took a 77-55 victory that broke a three-game losing streak to Villanova.

The defeat was the fifth in a row for the Wildcats, who would go on to close the regular season with six wins in their last nine games.

Both St. Joe's and Villanova qualified for the NCAA tournament, with the Wildcats advancing to the Sweet 16.

Last night, Villanova was no doubt eager to see any opponent after losing to Texas, 67-58, on Tuesday.

And what better team to bounce back against than the one that handed the Wildcats a 22-point loss when the longtime rivals last met?

"Ah, it was just another city game we had," said St. Joe's forward Ahmad Nivins, who had 16 points and eight rebounds. "And we didn't finish."

Contact staff writer Kevin Tatum at 215-854-2583 or ktatum@phillynews.com.