NEW YORK - Given the law of averages, combined with Villanova's struggles over much of the last month, one got the feeling that Marquette was ready to turn the tables yesterday.

In their last three meetings, the Wildcats had beaten the Golden Eagles by one, two and two points.

The 10th-ranked Cats played offense the way they knew how, but their defense just couldn't keep up with Marquette's second-half passing, patience and shot making that led to an 80-76 upset in the Big East tournament at Madison Square Garden.

Villanova (24-7) will continue its season next week in the NCAA tournament, but will do it having lost back-to-back games and five of its last seven, a run that may drop its seed to No. 4. Despite postgame claims to the contrary, the slide can only be hurting its confidence.

"There's no confidence issue," said junior Corey Stokes, who led the Wildcats with 22 points. "Even though we have a lot of young guys, everybody has a lot of confidence. We're not going to get down on ourselves. We're just going to come to practice and work even harder."

Coach Jay Wright insisted that no one was hanging his head in the locker room.

"I really don't see that," he said. "Sometimes it's a good thing and a bad thing. They're resilient. When the game's over, they're fine.

"We're at the point in the season where we're getting hit with some reality over the last few weeks, but I believe we're actually getting better."

Marquette made 15 of its last 20 shots from the field, including a perfect 6 of 6 from three-point territory, to knock the Wildcats out of the Big East tourney after one game for the first time since 2003.

There was nothing fancy about anything the Golden Eagles did offensively. They just passed and passed until the Wildcats made a mistake or were slow getting to a spot, and then drained open shots with frightening regularity.

"They do such a great job of making the extra passes, driving the ball, not taking the initial shot," Wright said. "They get you scrambling. If you're not great at playing every possession for 35 seconds defensively, they're going to get you.

"I think that was the difference. We're good at it. We're not great at it yet."

Even though they shot 55.6 percent from the field in the second half, and 54.0 percent for the game, the Cats, who defeated the Golden Eagles twice during the regular season, couldn't come up with the stops when necessary.

"They hit some tough shots," cocaptain Reggie Redding said. "Maybe there were little assignments that we blew and they just took advantage of it."

On the other end of the court, the Golden Eagles' defense made sure Scottie Reynolds had minimal impact on the game. Reynolds scored 10 points, nearly nine points below his average and his third-lowest total of the season. He shot 4 of 10 from the field and 2 of 5 from deep.

"I'm not going to go out there and go 7 for 7; it's not going to happen every night," Reynolds said. "But they did a good job. I missed some ones I usually hit, but that's the game of basketball."

Stokes, who tied his career high with six three-point baskets, and Corey Fisher, who scored 14 of his 16 points in the second half, made sure the Cats stayed in it. Stokes' three-ball with just over 13 minutes to play gave Villanova its largest lead of the second half at 48-41.

Marquette, however, scored on 10 of its next 13 possessions. That resulted in a 24-9 run, capped by a three-pointer from Darius Johnson-Odom (24 points) that moved the Golden Eagles ahead by 65-57 with 4:54 remaining.

The Wildcats would never lead again, but they kept it interesting.

After a basket by Reynolds, 'Nova forced three consecutive turnovers, and Fisher's layup tied it at 65-all with 3:37 to play. Another trey by Stokes at the 2:21 mark forged the day's final tie at 70, and Lazar Hayward put Marquette up for good on a three-ball with 1:49 remaining.

Hayward and David Cubillan hit seven free throws down the stretch to keep the Cats at arm's length, and relegated many in 'Nova Nation to doubt about how long the team's NCAA life will be. But not the players.

"A lot of people are making too big of a deal of the losing streak and everything like that," Reynolds said. "For us, we just continue to get better and we don't focus on what people say on the outside."