ROSEMONT, Ill. When you're the 10th-ranked team in the land, and you've won eight of your last nine games, including four over Top 25 opponents, and you're playing a team that's still looking for its first Big East victory since last season, the last thing you want to do is give the other guys a reason to think they really can.
Yet that's exactly what Villanova did last night at Allstate Arena. Can't say coach Jay Wright didn't at least try to warn us.
After winning Sunday at No. 24 Syracuse, he reminded everyone of what had happened 13 months ago.
After beating Syracuse in upstate New York, his team went to Rutgers and promptly got whacked.
He didn't want anything resembling a repeat. Not at this stage of the season. Not for a club that didn't have any bad losses on its resume.
Fortunately for Villanova's NCAA seeding, it turned out to be nothing more than a pretty good scare.
The Wildcats (23-5, 11-4), down by 10 early in the second half, finally did what they were supposed to do, and were able to fly home with a 74-72 win.
"We were scrambling [at the end]," Wright conceded. "We got lucky. They outplayed us. We probably won on talent."
Scrambling at Syracuse, where they led virtually the entire way, is one thing. This was another. Good thing Scottie Reynolds pretty much saved them down the stretch.
After leading by a dozen with a little over 6 minutes to go, things got frenetic. DePaul (8-20, 0-15), suffering through its worst season in more than a decade, kept firing threes. And Will Walker was the one mostly pulling the trigger. He hit four from the arc in a span of 3 minutes and change, and suddenly the difference was down to two, at 2:45.
That's when Reynolds made it happen at the other end. First he drove down the lane for a lefthanded layup. Then he made an off-balance jumper in the lane. Both times after DePaul had made twos to keep it a one-possession game.
He would also make four free throws in the final 50 seconds. Shane Clark and Dante Cunningham both added two, and a Dar Tucker trey at the buzzer only made it closer.
Obviously, the Wildcats avoided a big-time hiccup. Did we mention they'd lost here last season?
"You don't want to take any steps back," Reynolds said. "They played a heckuva game. We could easily be sitting here saying they beat us. But we don't judge ourselves by just wins or losses. We still want to be the best team we can at the end. We actually believe that.
"We want to learn from this, get ready for the next one."
The senior class of Dante Cunningham, Reggie Redding, Shane Clark and Frank Tschuisi, not the most heavily recruited group to ever end up on the Main Line, have now been a part of 95 wins. That ties them for the most in program history, with the 1997 group of Jason Lawson, Alvin Williams and Chuck Kornegay. Not bad company. And this foursome should have plenty of chances to add to the total before calling it a career.
"That's an incredible accomplishment, it really is," Wright gushed. "Amazing. I hadn't been told. I'm very proud of them."
Added Cunningham: "It's definitely something we didn't set out to do at the beginning of the year. I think at the end, we'll look back and say, 'Hey, that's what we did.' [For now] we'll take it as it is."
The Wildcats host Georgetown on Saturday afternoon at the Wachovia Center, before heading to Notre Dame on Monday night. They'll close out the regular season next Thursday at the Pavilion, where they haven't lost in more than 2 years, against Providence.
"If we didn't play our best [when they had to], we would have been in trouble," Wright admitted. "If Scottie doesn't make two incredible plays, we're not even talking about this. It wasn't like we were making stops.
"That's one of the great things about college athletics. I can't tell you how impressed I was to see that team play like that. I feel for them. We didn't play that bad. You've got to respect that. In their situation that's a tough thing to do. They want to win, too."
Villanova got 18 points from both Cunningham and Reynolds, which you expect. Corey Fisher, who's become a catalyst, had 12 off the bench. And Corey Stokes added 10, including some huge threes when they really mattered.
Walker finished with 23 for DePaul, who led at the half of a conference game for only the second time this year. Mac Koshwal had 17, Tucker 16, but he launched 23 shots.
Last week at home against Rutgers, which has won once in the conference (over DePaul), the Wildcats had trailed by two with 10 minutes left but wound up winning by 10.
The reality is, they all count, no matter how you get them.
"We did what we have to do, make big plays at the end," Reynolds said. "I think my teammates have confidence that if the ball's in my hands, I'll make the right decision."
You know what they say about timing? *