SOMETIMES, you simply have to respect the rivalry, which in this case happens to be the fiercest the City Series has to offer.

So why should the 67th edition have been much different?

Just because unbeaten Villanova came in as the country's No. 3 team, having just taken out Maryland in the nation's capital? Or that the Wildcats (9-0) had won 20 of their previous 21 Big 5 games, a dominance that only the Penn program of the early 1970s could claim?

The 'Cats, after all, had already beaten Penn by 38 and La Salle by 18, both at home, which had some pondering if they could perhaps do better than the combined 83 points they had beaten the other four teams by in 2005-06 en route to the Final Eight.

Saint Joseph's, which had lost four straight after opening with three victories, was picked to finish closer to the bottom of the Atlantic 10 than the top. But a year ago, they went to the Pavilion and came within a missed front end of a 1-and-1 in the closing moments of pulling off the upset. Over a 'Nova team that would make it to the last weekend.

And who could forget what went down 2 years ago at the Palestra, when a 'Nova team that would make a late run to the Sweet 16 got smoked by 22.

They met up again in West Philadelphia last night. Two schools that don't really like to break bread together. This season, 'Nova has way better weapons. And many more of them.

The final was 97-89. But it was a five-point game with just under 3 minutes remaining, not too long after 'Nova had led by a dozen. St. Joe's Darrin Govens then missed a three from straightaway. Corey Fisher made two foul shots at the other end. But with 2 minutes showing, the Hawks' Carl Jones got fouled outside the arc by Scottie Reynolds and went to the line. He converted all three tries, and the ancient building was going only slightly bonkers, as it had every right to.

On the ensuing possession, Villanova's Taylor King nailed one from deep on the left wing to beat the shot clock. Just as he had done a minute earlier (and two other times in the second half). They would be two of only three baskets 'Nova got in the closing 7 minutes. But the 'Cats would make their last 29 freebies in a row after missing their second one of the second half.

The Hawk did indeed perish. It obviously didn't go quietly.

"We came here to win," St. Joe's coach Phil Martelli said. "We ended up playing 40 minutes. We came up short. That really stinks. When people say you played hard . . . [they mean] you're not good enough. We weren't good enough.

"It never really got uncomfortable for [Villanova]. We were uphill the whole second half, but we never got deflated. It was like a bout. We took a swing, they took a swing, we took swing."

St. Joe's, which kept hitting big-time treys every time it appeared as if 'Nova would separate itself for keeps, isn't supposed to have much of a bench. When Villanova coach Jay Wright puts in his subs, it's hard to tell the difference.

For the longest while, it didn't seem to matter. Which is probably how it should be.

"I know the history," Wright explained, for about the 100th time. "I've seen it. We've all seen it. You just knew one of their guys was going to go off."

Or even several. Idris Hilliard scored 22, going 5-for-5 from the field and 12-for-13 at the line. Govens had 19. Garrett Williamson had 13, and seven assists. Martelli even got 16 off the bench from Carl Jones and 12 from Justin Crosgile. Both are freshmen.

Villanova got 20 from eighth man King, who also had nine boards in 27 minutes. Which could make you forget about the breakaway dunk he missed in the second half, which he then compounded by committing a bad foul at the other end.

"That happens to the best of them," he said. "The guys just kept me up, saying 'Next play, next play.' I had to keep a good attitude about it. When I saw an opportunity to make a play [later on], I just shot it.

"It's just another game. I had to keep my cool. And [my teammates] kept me positive. I just want to give it up for [them]."

Villanova's Antonio Pena scored 15, all in the opening 20 minutes. Fisher added 13, and six assists, before fouling out late.

The 'Cats, who outrebounded the Hawks, 42-31, went 35-for-40 at the line.

"It's what great teams do," Martelli noted. "I'm enamored with the way they play. I'm going to enjoy watching them progress the rest of the season. But I didn't enjoy watching them on film [getting ready for the game]."

The Hawks played like they had to, which was near-perfect, to have a realistic chance. It wasn't like 'Nova played badly or lacked for effort. St. Joe's simply brought the spirited want-to of an underdog.

Those who've seen these antagonists go at it should have known.

"We know every time we step on the court, we're going to get everybody's best shot," said Reynolds, who finished with 22 points, six rebounds, five assists, four steals and six turnovers. "They're going to come at us.

"We're building our own identity. No matter what, we can always come back and keep a good attitude. If you can sustain that, especially on the road, we're really starting to show that."

Villanova will bus to Temple (7-2) on Sunday. A day earlier, the Hawks will be at Minnesota.

We should have figured what was coming when no team scored more than once in a row through the first 6 minutes. It was, as they say, good hoops. Villanova would go up nine, but St. Joe took a one-point lead before the 'Cats scored the final four points of the half to make it 41-38.

There was a bunch more to come.

Long live the border skirmish.