THE SCOREBOARD said there were 17 points of difference between Villanova and Temple last night. It was sort of a slow-motion beat down by the Wildcats, who are finished with the city and off to the Big East on New Year's Day.

Actually, Villanova finished off the city - again. Senior Dante Cunningham will end his 'Nova career 15-1 in the Big 5. He is from the D.C. suburbs, but has been around here long enough to know what that means.

But he won't gloat about it. In fact, he will hardly acknowledge it, and not because he does not think it matters. If you play for Villanova these days, it is not about what you did; it is about what you can still do.

When that theory was suggested to Cunningham, he concurred. Accomplishments are nice, but you total them up at the end of the season.

"You are definitely proud of it, but right now, in the mix of the season, we just have to worry about the next game," Cunningham said.

The end-of-the-year banquet is time for celebration, Cunningham said.

That locked-in focus is the reason why Villanova has become the dominant program in the city again and why Jay Wright has made his team into a national program again.

So, Villanova 62, Temple 45 meant something to Cunningham and his teammates. But they don't look back.

Temple is 5-6, but is better than its record reflects. Some of the record has been the result of the road/neutral schedule.

"If we had their schedule, we might be 6-4," Wright said. "I think they're getting real close."

The Owls actually were ahead for the first 27 minutes, leading, 32-24. Even that advantage didn't seem commensurate with the play on the floor. Temple should have been up by more.

But that's the thing about Villanova. These Wildcats don't often dazzle you. But they do hang, and then they beat you.

You sometimes wonder how, but it can't be coincidence when it keeps happening. There is usually this one moment when everything turns and the 'Cats ride the wave to the finish line.

After scoring 24 points in those 27 minutes and missing 25 of 35 shots, the Wildcats got 14 points over the next 150 seconds.

Meanwhile, the Owls were on a reverse roll, shooting 0-for-9 and committing six turnovers over 18 endless possessions that resulted in only six made free throws.

Watch Temple and you wonder when the scoreboard will equal the ability. Something, obviously, is missing.

Perhaps, it is point guard Juan Manuel Fernandez, who sat at the end of the Owls bench, observing his first Big 5 game a few days after arriving from Argentina. It was quite ugly for long periods of time, more bad hoops than great defense. It was a game in need of some direction.

Temple coach Fran Dunphy said he was tempted to play Fernandez, but, with just "two and change" practices, he decided to wait until Monday's home game against Kent State.

"His ability to pick things up has been very good," Dunphy said. "What I've seen so far, I really like. I think he can help us."

Right now, this is a team in need of some direction, the sooner, the better.

Temple sophomore Lavoy Allen is way too good to have two points and five turnovers in 25 minutes, of which perhaps two were inspired.

"He needs to play better," Dunphy said. "He needs to decide how good a player he wants to be."

Allen, in fact, has as much pro potential as any player in the city. But potential is just a word at this point.

Villanova (12-1) is not about potential. The Wildcats are what they are, rarely pretty, always tough, finding a way, regardless of circumstance.

"Our defense kept us in it in the first half," Wright said.

Then, they had that run behind Corey Fisher's shooting and driving. And that one 14-0 blitz was enough to separate the teams.

"I thought we had a series of decent looks in the second half," Dunphy said.

They did, but Villanova sort of wears you out. Everywhere you turn, they are there, daring you to make a play. Eventually, you get tired of dealing with them and start hoisting up shots that maybe you shouldn't. Which is one of the reasons Dionte Christmas was 4-for-19, Temple was 25 points off its average and shot 23.1 percent in the second half.

The Wildcats now head into the Big East wilderness, where, on opening night, Georgetown went to Hartford and beat No. 2 Connecticut, 74-63. That won't be the last upset in this league.

Villanova will win its share. And if you do beat the Wildcats, you will have to earn it. There will be nothing easy.

Temple, meanwhile, is trying to find its place. Right now, the Owls are a bit of mystery. But you know the coach has a way of figuring it out. He proved it all those years at Penn and in last season's run to the Atlantic 10 championship. This is about the time teams start to get better, if they are going to get better. Check back in a few weeks to see whether Temple is again one of those teams. *

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