LAST FEBRUARY at the Palestra, Villanova's basketball team walked off the floor with its largest loss in the lengthy history of the Holy War. Hardly a warm and cuddly feeling.

Unless, of course, you're Saint Joseph's.

Last night at the Pavilion, the Wildcats got what they had waited 10 months for. Barely. But 20 years down the road, this will still count the same.

It wouldn't be a stretch to say that coach Jay Wright's Wildcats got outplayed for much of the way. Yet, they made enough plays when it counted most to come away with a 59-56 win.

And when the game had careened to a single possession, Wright put the ball in the only place that made any sense. He entrusted the outcome to Scottie Reynolds. And the junior guard, as he's done before, came up like the difference-maker he often is.

He dribbled past a defender and got into the lane. He drew contact, from Idris Hilliard, on his way to the rim, with 4.8 seconds showing. There was no disputing the whistle. Nor was there any doubt about the two free throws. Reynolds hit both.

Dante Cunningham then stole the inbounds pass near midcourt, got fouled and made a pair at the line with 2.5 left.

There would be no miracle, or overtime, for Saint Joseph's who, by Wright's admission, probably deserved better.

"We just gutted it out," Wright said. "Thank God we were playing at home.

"This is what everyone thinks of when they remember a Big 5 game. This was a classic. As a fan, you love them. As a coach . . . when it's over, I can be a fan again."

The Wildcats (9-1), coming off their first loss of the season 2 nights earlier against Texas in New York, play at La Salle on Sunday night. They have now won 16 of their last 17 Big 5 matchups. Most of them haven't been close. The average victory margin in the last seven meetings of this series had been 17 points and change.

Not this time.

Saint Joseph's (4-5) was in front most of the way. Villanova went in front, 53-52, on a Reggie Redding jumper with 2:55 remaining. It was the first time the Wildcats were ahead since 13-12.

After two more lead changes, Ahmad Nivins put St. Joe's up for the final time, with two freebies at 44.6 seconds. But Darrin Govens missed the front end of a one-and-one at 16.9 that gave the Wildcats a final opportunity.

"You never worry about [Reynolds]," Wright said.

At this point, why would you?

"All we said [at halftime] was, 'We've got to get it done,' " Reynolds explained. "No excuses. Leave it all out there, and what happens happens.

"This one's up there. It wasn't pretty. Nothing's going to be, every night. This will help us later on.

"Coach lets me go. He's done that for quite a bit. I appreciate that. That's the greatest thing you can give a player at the end of the game."

It's the first time Villanova has won this year by fewer than 13.

The Wildcats didn't try a free throw in the first half, then went 14-for-16, including its last dozen, in the second.

St. Joe's is now off until Dec. 22, when Cornell visits.

"Today, we just weren't good enough," St. Joe's coach Phil Martelli said. "This was certainly a step up. There's still some doubt with our guys, whether they can play at this level. I would hope these 40 minutes would convince them.

"[Villanova] turned it up. I think the beauty is the players decided the game. Unfortunately, we unraveled a little bit."

The Hawks shot 56 percent from the floor in the first half, 55.6 from the arc, against a team that has been holding opponents to 37 and 30, respectively. After intermission, they cooled off. The Wildcats had something to do with that. St. Joe's had 10 consecutive scoreless possessions midway through the second, and still was holding a six-point lead at the 5-minute mark.

Redding had only six points, but he sure had good timing. All of them came in the final 4 1/2 minutes, and it was his foul-line jumper that finally put Villanova ahead.

Reynolds had 18, on 15 shots, to go with six assists. Cunningham had 14, but only four rebounds. Dwayne Anderson, playing in only his third game after coming back from a stress reaction in his left foot, got his first start and finished with 10 points in 31 minutes.

Govens scored 18 for the Hawks, 6-for-11 from three-point range, and Nivins had 16.

"We learned a lot from the Texas game that probably helped us in this game," Wright said. "We just didn't get down. I'm proud of our attitude. It's good to have one of these under your belt.

"These games are going to happen. There are going to be a lot more great games. No Big East game played here will be any more intense."

Tap-ins

Villanova already has what one scouting service has called the No. 2 recruiting class in the nation for next season. It could get even better. Dominic Cheek, a 6-5 wing man from St. Anthony's High in Jersey City, N.J., is expected to announce his destination today. And the finalists supposedly are Villanova and Kansas. *