Years from now, it will be remembered that Villanova closed the college basketball phase in the life of the Wachovia Spectrum, but that didn't much matter to the Wildcats and their fans last night.

The 21st-ranked Wildcats finally picked up the signature victory they had been seeking in the meat grinder that is the Big East Conference, putting the defensive clamps on Pittsburgh down the stretch and beating the No. 3 Panthers, 67-57, before a festive crowd of 17,491.

The Wildcats (16-4 overall, 4-3 Big East) had been 0-4 against ranked teams before last night. Yes, they had defeated the teams they were supposed to beat, but with plenty of chances to play against ranked teams in their conference, they had to be wondering when a "good" victory in the eyes of the NCAA selection committee would come.

Well, their fans were wondering. Coach Jay Wright said it was not all that urgent.

"We never talked about it as a team," Wright said. "The reason we wanted to get this is because they're really good, and we wanted to prove to ourselves that we could play with those guys. . . .

"I understand outsiders' perception. It's big. I understand that. Our guys do, too. But we pride ourselves in not letting one game turn into a problem."

Dante Cunningham, who scored 15 points and was a key figure in getting Panthers center DeJuan Blair in foul trouble, said the winless streak against ranked teams did not bother the Wildcats, but "it definitely was in the back of our heads."

"We had team meetings where we talked about it," he said. "We talked about what we can do and what we have to do to get better and be where we want to be at the end of the year."

The game turned when the Wildcats went on a 7-0 run to break a 48-48 tie and take the lead for good. Scottie Reynolds sparked the spurt with a short jumper and a three-ball, the latter giving his team a 55-48 lead with 5 minutes, 26 seconds to play.

Pittsburgh (18-2, 6-2) went only 2 of 10 from the field in the final eight minutes. The Panthers missed all 10 of their three-point tries in the second half.

A big key for the Wildcats was the foul trouble encountered by Blair, the Big East's No. 2 rebounder, who had to sit for key stretches of the second half and accounted for just seven points and eight rebounds in 23 minutes.

"Once he got in foul trouble, we tried to go to Dante and get him in ball screens," Wright said. "I think three of his fouls came on ball screens."

A baseline jumper by Cunningham and a driving layup by Reggie Redding, who scored a career-high 18 points, gave the Wildcats a 59-51 lead with three minutes left. The Cats went 8 of 10 on free throws in the final 2:17.

Redding converted four free throws down the stretch and finished 10 for 10.

"Of course, it's good for any team to beat the No. 3 team in the country," said Redding, of St. Joseph's Prep. "But you have to have short memories. The season's not over just because you beat the No. 3 team. We have to get ready for Cincinnati on Sunday."

Sam Young led Pitt with 14 points. The Panthers got a lift off the bench from sophomore guard Brad Wanamaker, a former star at Roman Catholic, who went 6 of 7 from the field and scored 13 points.

The crowd rose in unison after Pitt missed on its final possession and coach Jamie Dixon ordered his team not to foul. After the buzzer, the Wildcats saluted fans at both ends of the arena.

"It was cool at the end," Wright said. "It brought back great memories."