HOW LONG could they hang? Four minutes. Eight minutes. Ten minutes looked like about it.

Villanova was not getting most of the rebounds. The Wildcats were getting all of them, literally all of them, 13 in a row at one point.

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Saint Joseph's, energized by its crowd at the Palestra and an especially wild student section that took up just about every seat from the baseline to the wall at the 33rd Street end, was playing about as well as it could play, not like a 3-4 team, not like a 13-point underdog, not like a group that was at all overmatched.

Hawks senior guard Darrin Govens, who played so well in the near upset of the 'Cats last season, was making shots and making plays. St. Joe's junior forward Idris Hilliard was diving for loose balls on missed foul shots, starting on one side of the lane and then appearing on the other like an apparition, fighting a lonely battle with the Wildcats' bigger, relentless front line.

The Hawks trailed by nine. Then, before you wondered how quickly it might get to 20, it got to one. And the Hawks had the one.

It was not like No. 3 Villanova was playing badly. St. Joe's just happened to be playing like its basketball reputations depended upon it.

Twelve minutes, 16, 20, 24. Tick, tick, tick.

How long?

Hawks coach Phil Martelli was realistic in his assessment of the relative strengths of the two teams. He knew what everybody knew. Villanova had the better players. But would they have the better team on this night? In the end, that is all anybody would remember.

It is one thing to lose. It is quite another to lose bravely. And, if the favorite were going to win this game, as the favorite has always done in recent years in the one city rivalry that will always matter, it would know it had been in a game.

Twenty-eight, 30, 32.

The lead was up to 12. Surely, this was it.

Tick, tick, tick.

Then, it was down to six and five and four.

Thirty-two, 36, 38.

Two minutes left, four-point Villanova lead.

Tick, tick, tick.

Now 5 seconds on the shot clock. A great St. Joe's defensive possession.

And 'Nova's Taylor King, for the second time in a few minutes, pops open behind the three-point line in front of the Wildcats' bench.

And buries a cold-blooded three.

Boom.

Villanova 97, St. Joe's 89.

The Wildcats made 29 straight free throws in the second half. They withstood rally after rally. They shot 52.4 percent in the final 20 minutes. They played like a team that has owned the city for 6 years and doesn't appear ready to give ownership up anytime soon. They played like the championship-level team they have been.

St. Joe's did not win on the scoreboard, but won about everywhere else. It would have been enough against most teams, just not against this team.

"Not all losses are losing experiences,'' Martelli said.

The Hawks played the final moments with four guards (seniors Garrett Williamson and Govens and freshmen Justin Crosgile and Carl Jones) and junior forward Hilliard (career-best 22 points, 5-for-5 from the field, 12-for-13 from the line). The Wildcats matched them with four guards and King, who is big but can play inside, way outside or just about anywhere else.

"I like the way he plays the game,'' Martelli said. "He is positionless, but he plays with such incredible passion."

If there is one word to describe Villanova under Jay Wright, passion is that word. The Wildcats have a real passion for the game.

"They showed a lot of guts,'' Wright said. "And I was real proud of our guys for that.''

The Wildcats get after it and you. They can play slow. They can play fast. They can just play.

The Hawks ran the ball against a team with quickness at every spot. That may seem counterintuitive, but St. Joe's was not going to win setting it up.

The Wildcats won it because their bench outscored the Hawks', 39-29. And King had 20 of those points, six of them right after blowing a breakaway dunk.

"That happens,'' King said. "It doesn't matter. It's the next play.''

The 'Cats had 17 second-chance points to just six for the Hawks.

The teams finished in a dead heat for dives and long slides on the floor. And 'Nova had King.

"Nothing's going on in that mind when he shoots the ball," Wright said. "He just shoots it anytime, anywhere."

Hilliard, Govens (19 points) and Williamson (13 points, seven assists) combined for 54 points. The freshmen, Jones and Crosgile, combined for 28.

"A game like this is always fun,'' Williamson said. "The atmosphere is crazy. The real fun is being on the winning end."

Scottie Reynolds and Corey Fisher had nearly as many turnovers (10) as assists (11), but they made all those free throws, just enough winning plays and combined for 35 points.

The Wildcats led the entire second half, but never by all that much. Martelli suggested the Wildcats were never uncomfortable. Wright thought they were.

Whatever the comfort level, it was some game. High-level hoops in early December, a really good team showing just how good against a team trying to find a level and stay there.

Send e-mail to jerardd@phillynews.com