VILLANOVA'S basketball team played its 12th game last night. The 19 that it has left in the regular season promise to be a lot more meaningful, beginning Monday at home against Temple. So far, the 18th-ranked Wildcats are pretty much where most folks figured they would be.

Or maybe even precisely.

They beat Navy (8-4) at the Pavilion, 78-68, for their 11th victory. The lone blemish was to No. 9 Texas earlier this month in Madison Square Garden.

The Big East portion of the journey starts Jan. 1 at Marquette.

So what more do you really need to know?

Well, this one probably wasn't supposed to be quite so difficult. But the Wildcats were coming off an 8-day layoff for final exams. And the Midshipmen, under former Villanova staffer Billy Lange, had a game plan that served them well. Bombs away. With 2 minutes and 38 seconds to go, they got within three for the first time since 29-26, despite missing four foul shots in the previous 3:49.

The Wildcats were able to survive because their go-to guys, Dante Cunningham and Scottie Reynolds, played like go-to guys. And because Navy finally missed four consecutive three-pointers down the stretch after making 14 of their first 24.

Cunningham scored 24 points, and Reynolds had 23. The Wildcats needed just about all of them.

"As veterans, we talked about it in the last 5 minutes," Reynolds said. "We've got to lead the team. Whatever happens, happens. But we've got to carry the team. That's all you can do."

The Wildcats hit 11 of 14 at the foul line in the closing 2:22 and came up with stops, or else it might not have been a happy ending.

"Honestly, it was great to be done with finals," Cunningham acknowledged. "As leaders, you have to make sure everyone's head is cleared, get them ready to play. We didn't do a good enough job of that."

Navy guard Chris Harris went 8-for-10 from the arc, and finished with a career-high 30 points. His only two-pointer (in five tries) came on his final shot, with 25 seconds left. He was the first non-Big East player to hit that many threes against Villanova.

Navy made six of 26 from two-point range and turned it over 18 times, double Villanova's total.

"Once he got going, he was hard to stop," Reynolds said of Harris. "You see that all the time in college basketball. It's definitely something we have look ourselves in the eyes and work on."

Kaleo Kina, who was averaging 20, got 15 for Navy. But he needed 21 shots to do it.

The Wildcats, who had 11 more rebounds (14 more in the second half), made only five treys. But Cunningham was again difficult to stop, both down low and midrange. He was 11-for-18 from the floor, to go with 10 boards. Reynolds went 7-for-16, 4-for-9 from three-point range and 5-for-7 from the line to tie his season high for points.

Antonio Pena made five of six freebies, all late, and took down a career-best dozen off the glass for Villanova.

"We did not play well, but a lot of that had to do with Navy," Wright said. "Obviously, I'm biased, but [Lange] does a great job. There's no excuses. They kept coming. That's a good team. They were up six at the half against Virginia Tech. I don't like [playing him].

"Maybe we had a little more talent. You could feel the tension [at the end]. Once you get to that point, they're feeling good. The pressure's on you. It's good to experience that, but I'd rather wait for a Big East game."

He'll get his chance soon enough. First, though, his team must deal with the Owls.

"I'm sure Dionte [Christmas] will have drool coming off his chin when he sees this," Wright joked.

He'll get his chance in 6 days.

"Chris got us going, and kind of kept it going," Lange said. "He's definitely streaky. Even if he doesn't hit his first couple, he's not going to stop shooting.

"We believed we could win. But we played a team that doesn't beat itself."

It was 37-28 after 20 minutes. The Wildcats got out to leads of 13-3, 17-6 and 22-12. But with 4 minutes to go before the break, Navy was within three, mainly because it didn't miss from deep. Or, to be more precise, Harris didn't. The junior, Navy's second-leading scorer, made four threes in the first 7 minutes and change. At which point, the rest of his team had made nothing from anywhere. By the break he had 18, on 6-for-7 from distance. The miss came in the final 20 seconds.

"He was the story," Wright conceded. "He was just great, man. We just left him early. And once you let a guy like that get going . . . The problem was we let him catch the ball. We tried to react too late. Our attention to detail [wasn't there]. We take great pride in not allowing that to happen."

Christmas awaits. First the holiday, then the next challenge. *