YOU BEAT THE third-ranked team in the nation, it tends to get people's attention.

You come right back and overcome a sluggish start to win the next game by 21, over a club that had won four of its last five, well, that makes the coach smile.

Maybe they're not all created equal. Yet at some point you still have to add them all up.

Four days after knocking off Pitt in South Philly, the 21st-ranked Wildcats beat Cincinnati yesterday at the Pavilion, 71-50. It was hard to tell which pleased Jay Wright more.

"After the Pitt game, I would have been happy coming in here and [just] surviving," said Wright, after his guys improved to 17-4, 5-3 in the Big East. "Because I know how hyped everyone was around here about the Pitt game. And I was concerned about this one. But I think we got better today. I feel really good about that.

"We haven't had a big win like [Pitt]. So, for the first time, we had to tackle something different. In this league, and I know you're sick of hearing it, you have to worry about how a game's going to affect you, going into the next one."

Last season, the Wildcats didn't bag their 17th victory until Feb. 23, in game No. 26. They're about to enter perhaps their roughest stretch of the year, beginning Wednesday at surprising Providence (14-7, 6-3). Then it's Syracuse at the Wachovia Center, a rematch with Marquette on the Main Line and a trip to West Virginia. So we'll obviously know a bunch more about them 2 weeks from now. But they've won three straight, and four of five. The lone blemish in that stretch was by six at Connecticut, certainly no felony.

Step by step. Cliche or not, it's Wright's mantra.

"It's something we have to keep pounding into the younger guys' heads," insisted senior forward Dante Cunningham, who had 21 points (on 11 shots) to go with eight rebounds and three blocks. "We've been through it. When we were younger, the older guys were always telling us that once a game's over you can't do anything about it. You can only go forward. If you beat the best team in the Big East, basically [the next opponent's] looking to make a name off of you."

The Bearcats (14-8, 4-5), who won 13 times all of last season, had just beaten slumping Georgetown at home. And after 15 minutes, they were up seven. But Villanova held one at halftime, which couldn't hurt since Cincy was 10-0 when leading at the break.

The difference was still only six with 13 minutes to go. A 13-0 run in the next six was enough to shift the focus to all those Super Bowl parties.

Scottie Reynolds and Corey Fisher each scored 11. Dwayne Anderson had nine points and eight boards. The Wildcats committed 15 turnovers (including a half-dozen by Cunningham) and were 2-for-12 on triples. But once again, they defended. Especially in the second half, when Cincy shot 18 percent overall and from the arc. It's the 11th time the 'Cats have held a team to 60 points or fewer. In three others, they've allowed 61 or 62.

Cincy's top scorer, Deonta Vaughn, scored eight points, seven below his average, on 14 shots. Fisher guarded him much of the time. A year ago that probably isn't happening.

"I didn't pay attention to detail as much," the 6-1 sophomore admitted. "I didn't take it that serious. I know if I wanted to play, I had to work on that. That was tough.

"You're so anxious to get out there, I'm jumping up as soon as coach calls my name. Even when he's not subbing me in. Coming from high school to college, it's just a different ballgame. I watched my teammates, how hard they played. We've got a lot of guys who can come at you."

Indeed. And it's evident.

"I thought Cincinnati was the best prepared for what we do on the floor," Wright explained. "We really had to adjust. These seniors, they don't get down, or flustered. It keeps everybody that way.

"We're a year older. The difference between freshmen and sophomores is huge, in college basketball. It's been [an adjustment] for [Fisher]. He's never [come off the bench] before, in his life. I really admire how he's handling that."

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