No one will call Villanova the smoothest team in college basketball, but if the scrappy Wildcats continue to play defense the way they have lately, they're going to hold their own almost every night in the Big East.

After a shaky first half, the 21st-ranked Wildcats put the defensive clamps once again on their opponent yesterday. This time it was Cincinnati, and Villanova managed to grow a one-point halftime advantage into a decisive 71-50 victory at the Pavilion.

Wildcats coach Jay Wright had feared a letdown in this game, coming as it did four days after his team's upset of No. 3 Pittsburgh. It looked as if his prophecy was coming true when the Bearcats dominated most of the first half.

But the final 20 minutes were all Villanova (17-4 overall, 5-3 Big East). The Cats held Cincinnati (14-8, 4-5) to 6-of-33 shooting and forced nine turnovers.

During their three-game winning streak, the Wildcats have allowed opponents South Florida, Pittsburgh and Cincinnati to shoot only a combined 27 percent (24 of 89) from the field in the second half - and 15.8 percent (6 of 38) from three-point territory.

Wright said the solid defense involves a combination of upperclassmen plus the improvement of the team's three sophomores - Corey Fisher, Corey Stokes and Antonio Pena.

"Defense is a team game, even more than offense is," Wright said. "You just can't have one guy break you down. Last year we were young, and we had four guys out there busting their butts and one guy would break down.

"But that's where I think the development of Fish, Stokes and Antonio is really making a difference for us. Now we have five guys on the floor most times that are playing off each other and reading each other defensively and we don't have those breakdowns."

Fisher provided a spark off the bench yesterday with 11 points, but Wright praised him more for his defense. Fisher's steal and layup touched off a 9-0 run late in the first half that got the Wildcats, who were down 26-19, out of their first-half funk.

For most of his 20 minutes, Fisher guarded Deonta Vaughn, the Bearcats' top scorer. Vaughn had just eight points for the game and shot 1 of 10 from the field in the second half.

"Offensively, he's one of the most gifted guys we've ever had," Wright said of Fisher. "But he's got teammates that really count on him defensively. He had to get up to speed with the other guys and he's starting to do that."

"My mind-set is I've just got to bring energy and defense off the bench," Fisher said. "The offense is going to come."

Dante Cunningham shot 8 of 11 from the field and had 21 points and eight rebounds to lead Villanova.

"He's all-Big East in my mind right now," Cincinnati coach Mick Cronin said.

The Wildcats held a tenuous 45-39 lead early in the second half before holding the Bearcats without a point for more than six minutes and scoring 12 consecutive points.

It marked the 11th time this season that the Wildcats have held their opponent to 60 points or fewer. They are 11-0 in those games.

"It's just a constant reminding each other that we've got to do it for ourselves, we've got to do it for our coaches, and we've got to do it for our teammates," Cunningham said. "It always has to start from within. You've got to want to do it yourself."

The Wildcats must keep that mind-set for the start of perhaps their toughest four-game stretch of the season beginning Wednesday at surprising Providence. They follow with home games against a pair of nationally ranked teams - Syracuse (Wachovia Center) and Marquette (Pavilion) - and then travel to dangerous West Virginia.