THERE WAS a time, way back when, when the Villanova men pretty much defined the Penn Relays.

Then, for the longest time, it became Arkansas' turn.

Yesterday at Franklin Field, it seemed just like old times. The Wildcats won the distance medley relay by beating the Razorbacks. It was their 90th victory in a Championship of America race, and 23rd in this event. Both, of course, are records. But it was their first since 2001, when they also took the DMR.

Australia's Matthew Gibney, whose been on the Main Line for all of 4 months, outkicked Dorian Ulrey in the closing 1,600-meter leg. His time of 3 minutes, 58.4 seconds got Villanova home in 9:30.81. almost a full 2 seconds in front of the Hogs.

"It's been a long time coming," said Sean Tully, one of two seniors in the foursome, who opened with a 2:56.7 in the 1,200. "We've been here so many times. It seems like we came so close every time. I love hearing that '[Go] Villanova' chant. It's really motivating."

For coach Marcus O'Sullivan, who was part of the glory days, the wait seemed even longer.

"I feel more relieved than I do elated, in many ways," he said with a smile. "I'm a practical kind of guy. I always recognized the fact that we were getting closer the last 4 years. If you get here every year, and compete every year, that's your job. Something will happen at some point."

Still . . .

"I can't explain [what this means] to people," he went on. "Sometimes, you have to be a Villanovan to truly understand it. You compare it to all the pressure situations [you're in], it's amazing how much you always come back to this as your barometer. It's like your benchmark. When you have people watching you who know who you are, it's a much bigger game you're playing.

"We're not just a participant here. It's a big deal to us, if we can pull something like this off. You could tell they were running for each other."

The other senior, Elvis Lewis, ran a 46.3 in the 400. When sophomore Jason Apway followed with a 1.49.4 in the 800, Villanova was right where it wanted to be. Which in this case was a close second. Texas anchor Jake Morse would make up a bunch of ground to eventually make it a three-team chase, but he didn't have anything left at the end. Gibney did. He went around Ulrey with about 150 meters to go, and it was time for a very heartfelt victory lap.

"It was hot, so I wasn't sure I'd be able to do it [on the second and third laps]," said Gibney, a medical student who came to Villanova on the recommendation of a friend of O'Sullivan's. "I really just wanted to bring it home for everyone else, especially Sean and Elvis. Everybody cares about this so much.

"Before I started talking to Villanova, I'd never heard of the Penn Relays before. In recruiting, it came up again and again. I suppose the last couple of months, I got a sense of how important it is. I remember the first time I ever spoke to Marcus he said, 'If you run a good mile at Penn and do nothing else all season, I'll be happy.' That was a bit of a heads-up as to when to be ready to go. I started to feel a bit of pressure toward the end of the week, I suppose. In terms of atmosphere, I haven't been at anything near this. It's amazing."

And almost too much to actually watch.

"I was just kind of closing my eyes, praying to God," Tully said. "I was hoping [Gibney would) come through. When it got to the last lap, I had to see what was going on.

"Every year's a new year. We always think we can win. It's about time we got one." *