It did not appear to matter to St. Joseph's tonight that Villanova was the third-ranked team in the nation. This was a Big Five game, a battle between two old and bitter rivals, and there was no script.
The Hawks threw a monumental scare into the Wildcats before a packed house at the Palestra, but Villanova, with the help of 18-of-18 shooting from the free-throw line in the final seven minutes, hung on for a 97-89 victory.
The Wildcats (9-0 overall, 3-0 Big Five) won for the 21st time in their last 22 City Series games. They can finish off the Big Five title Sunday when they play Temple at the Liacouras Center.
Villanova coach Jay Wright remembered two seasons ago, when the Hawks handed his team a 77-55 pounding at the Palestra for its only loss in Big Five competition since December 2004. And he had to sweat out tonight as well.
"I know I say this every time," Wright said, "but these games, you can never predict what's going to happen. You've got to come in here and tough it out. This was a classic Big Five atmosphere. St. Joe's has those incredibly passionate fans and the building is different when they're all in here.
"Their team played great, but I'm proud of our guys. It was a gutty Big Five win."
One of the more gutty Wildcats was sophomore Taylor King, a transfer from Duke who was playing in the Palestra for the first time. He scored 20 points and knocked down four three-point baskets, including a big trey with 1 minute, 29 seconds to play.
"My teammates did a good job helping me out, staying positive and keeping a good attitude," said King, who led the Wildcats with nine rebounds.
The Wildcats sank their final 29 free throws in the game, finishing 30 of 31 in the half and 35 of 40 for the night. Scottie Reynolds made 12 of 14 and led 'Nova with 22 points.
"That's the kind of free-throw-shooting team I expect us to be," Wright said.
The Hawks (3-5, 0-1) lost their fifth straight game, but they made things awfully interesting down the stretch.
Villanova held an 11-point lead with 6:53 to play and appeared ready to go up by 13 as King drove alone to the hoop on a breakaway, but he missed a dunk and the Hawks proceeded to go on an 8-2 run to get back into the game.
Three-point baskets by Carl Jones and Charoy Bentley enabled St. Joe's to narrow the deficit to 75-70 with 4:30 remaining. Jones later knocked down three free throws to make it a four-point game, 84-80, with two minutes left.
King's three-pointer got the margin back to seven. After Jones turned the ball over, the Wildcats' Corey Fisher sank two free throws and the lead eventually got back to 10.
"I was pleased with our response," St. Joe's coach Phil Martelli said. "To be honest, we crumbled against Purdue and we crumbled against Cornell. Tonight it was different. It really never was uncomfortable [for the Wildcats], but at least [the deficit] didn't go from nine to 17, and then it would be really uphill."
Antonio Pena chipped in with 15 points for 'Nova. Idris Hilliard led the Hawks with a career-high 22, while Darrin Govens added 19 and Jones 16. Villanova held a 42-31 edge on the boards.
The Wildcats led by only 41-38 at the half and 47-45 about 31/2 minutes into the second half before Reynolds' three free throws touched off a 10-2 run that gave them their largest lead to that point, 57-47, with 13:50 left to play.
Villanova later boosted its margin to 12, 71-59, on a layup by Dominic Cheek with 7:46 remaining. About a minute later, the Wildcats had King alone for a basket that would have given them a 13-point edge, but King missed the dunk, and St. Joe's began its rally.