MAYBE IT was only fitting that the last college basketball game at the Wachovia Spectrum - site of two Final Fours and arguably the greatest 45 minutes the sport's ever seen - ended in a court-storming.

Well, it would have, if the security folks had allowed it. But this was sure worthy of one.

Villanova 67, Pittsburgh 57.

No, it wasn't Duke-Kentucky for a 1992 regional title. But it was, finally, the kind of big-time win for Villanova that figures to keep on giving right up until Selection Sunday.

The Wildcats certainly had come close. All four of their losses had come against ranked opponents. Two had been in the previous four games, by one and six points to Louisville and Connecticut, currently Nos. 7 and 2, respectively. Pittsburgh came into South Philly at No. 3, having lost just once (at Louisville).

This time, No. 21 Villanova (16-4, 4-3 Big East) took advantage of a Ratings Percentage Index photo-op, rallying from a five-point halftime deficit for a victory that obviously enhances the old resume.

Nevertheless . . .

"I want to be honest," coach Jay Wright said. "I don't think it's that big a deal. I know everyone else thought we needed it. If we don't play well against Cincinnati [at the Pavilion on Sunday], we'll get beat. Everyone else looks at the NCAA Tournament. We're just looking at the next game, getting better. That's how this league is.

"We never talked about it as a team. We wanted to get this because [Pitt's] really good. We wanted to prove we could beat that kind of team.

"I understand perception, I really do. Now we have to deal with coming back and playing Cincinnati."

That's tomorrow's reality. This was a keeper. The Wildcats will have many more similar chances before the postseason arrives. But it never hurts to get some out of the way sooner than later. One less thing, in the words of Forrest Gump.

"When you're a player, you have to have a short memory," said senior forward Dante Cunningham, who stayed out of foul trouble for the first time in three games and finished with 15 points, five rebounds and two memorable first-half blocks in 34 minutes. "You can't focus on the past.

"I don't think it ever bothered us. But it's definitely in the back of our heads. We talked about it, had little reminders of what we can do, just to get where we want to be at the end of the year."

The Wildcats trailed by five at the half and it probably could have been worse, since Pitt center DeJuan Blair played 10 minutes before going to the bench with his second personal. The Panthers (18-2, 6-2) were up 10 when he departed. He would pick up his third early in the second half, and be on the floor for just 23 minutes. It makes a difference.

Villanova took the lead for keeps, at 50-48, on a pair of free throws by Reggie Redding with 8 minutes to go. Soon, the margin was seven. It would never dip below four.

The Panthers, who struggle at the foul line, missed five freebies in the closing 7:36. The Wildcats also bricked four, but converted their last six.

It was a typical Big East taffy-pull between programs that rely heavily on grit.

"They're just so physically tough," Wright said. "And they have veterans. Our vets are tough, too. And we played smart. You have to play like a team against them. And we were finally able to get Dante the ball [10 points after intermission].

"You can't simulate what they do in practice. We don't have bodies like that."

Whatever his guys do possess, it was sufficient.

Redding, who missed the tap-in at the horn that would have beaten Louisville, had a career-high 18 points. He went 10-for-10 from the line, to go with seven boards, in 34 minutes.

"My pop was a big fan," he said of the Spectrum. "When I was young, he was always talking about Doctor J, Moses Malone, Andrew Toney and those guys. But I never actually got a chance to watch a game in here. Coming from Philadelphia [St. Joseph's Prep], I love it and respect it. It was great to finish it off like that."

When it was over, the players paraded to both ends of the court to salute each student section. Nice touch, since the fans couldn't come to them.

The Wildcats, as they often do, got contributions large and small from all eight guys who got in. Somehow, it adds up. In a game in which a lot of bodies ended up on the floor, they held their own with the intangibles. You don't get the best of Pitt any other way.

Scottie Reynolds shot 3-for-11, but he drilled a trey with 5 1/2 minutes left that made it a seven-point game. And he only had one turnover. Corey Fisher provided some big buckets and energy off the bench. Shane Clark had seven boards, including four at the offensive end, in 17 minutes. Individually, the Wildcats don't always look the part. Collectively, they're capable, just never quite capable enough, at least not in this large a spot. At least not until now.

The Panthers got 14 points from Sam Young, 13 from Roman Catholic's Brad Wannamaker and 11 from Levance Fields. But they shot 3-for-16 from the arc, and turned it over 17 times.

"At the end, when the place was going crazy, it was awesome," Wright said. "I'll talk about the [Spectrum's] history with them tomorrow, about everything that's gone on here.

"The Center's great, but this has a different sound to it. They're right on top of you. It's a big stadium that's like a gym. That was cool. It brought back some great memories."

And left a proper exclamation point. *