BOSTON - After several seasons of great promise and ultimate disappointment, the Villanova Wildcats are headed back to college basketball's promised land.

Villanova beat Pittsburgh, 78-76, in a scintillating NCAA East Regional final last night to return the program under Jay Wright to a place neither the coach nor the players have been before.

The Wildcats haven't taken part in the Final Four - the Super Bowl of college hoops - since the 1985 team won the championship as a decided underdog.

"A lot of guys made big-time plays. We've got very good players who play well as a team," Wright said. "We're proud for Villanova and this great tradition we're all a part of."

This version of the Wildcats won't be a favorite in the Final Four, either, but Wright has developed a program that had fallen on harder times into a major player in the Big East Conference and a perennial national power.

Villanova plays Saturday in a national semifinal game against either North Carolina or Oklahoma at Detroit's Ford Field. That opponent will be decided this afternoon in the final of the South Regional. Should they survive that semifinal, the Wildcats will play for just their second national championship on April 6.

The Wildcats got to Detroit with a wild comeback in the final minutes of the game last night and took the win on a tiebreaking shot in the lane by point guard Scottie Reynolds with less than a second to play. A desperation heave by Pittsburgh at the buzzer bounced off the backboard and ignited a net-cutting ceremony such as Villanova has not experienced for nearly a quarter-century.

"It's an instinct play. You've got to know how much time is on the clock," Reynolds said. "I got lucky with one tonight."

Villanova led for most of the game, and held a 10-point advantage in the first half, but Pitt came back to regain the edge just before halftime, and throughout the second half the game see-sawed to the finish. There were 13 lead changes in the second half.

Pitt led by four points and had the ball with a little more than three minutes to play when Dwayne Anderson ignited the final comeback with a steal he took to the other end for a three-point play that put Villanova back into the game. Two possessions later, Anderson dropped in a three-point field goal and the Wildcats were never behind again.

It was a game in which Villanova was matched against a team that might have some superior individual players, a game that required them to be fundamentally sound. That was particularly in evidence at the free-throw line, where the Wildcats made 22 of 23 attempts. That offset a lackluster 6-for-20 three-point shooting performance and made up for some other deficiencies, including an inability to limit Pitt center DeJuan Blair and forward Sam Young, who combined for 48 points and 17 rebounds.

What the Wildcats did, as they always do, was defend tenaciously, getting hands in the passing lane every time Pitt tried to advance the ball, getting bodies in the way of the Panthers as they tried to find an opening.

"They continue to come at you," Pitt coach Jamie Dixon said. "They're constantly into you."

Among the Villanova rooters in the TD Banknorth Garden last night was Rollie Massimino, the coach of the 1985 team. Wright began his association with Villanova as an assistant under Massimino two years after that title, and has worked to revive the team's winning tradition.

"It's funny, the guys on our team right now, I just made this mistake a couple of weeks ago. I was referencing the national championship team and, just in general, said, 'How old were you when we won it?' " Wright said. "And they all looked at me and said, 'We weren't even born.' "

Not that long ago, Villanova's days of excellence seemed very far removed. At the end of Massimino's term, through the tenure of coach Steve Lappas and for the first two seasons under Wright - a span of 15 years - the Wildcats won just three NCAA tournament games, against Princeton, Portland State, and Long Island University.

Starting with the 2004-2005 season, Wright and Villanova have made the NCAA tournament five straight years, reached the regional round four times, and collected 11 wins, including last night's.

"The early years, you have to set your foundation. We went through our tough times, we did," Wright said. "I think every successful program does. And then you have your next challenge, once you get it going."

Having gotten the program in gear, Wright and his team had advanced to the doorstep of the Final Four just once before, in the 2005-2006 season, when the Wildcats lost in the regional final round to Florida, the eventual national champion.

Last night, they finally went through the door. History indicates they might find even better things on the other side.

Bob Ford:

With Villanova Final Four-bound, students start celebrating. B1.

Contact columnist Bob Ford at 215-854-5842 or bford@phillynews.com. Read his recent work at http://go.philly.com/bobford.