VILLANOVA'S basketball team is down to nine scholarship players, several of whom were not 100 percent last night due to rust and the lingering effects of injuries.

That, of course, is still nine more full or even partial athletic rides than Penn has on its roster.

But this was a Big 5 game. So sometimes it doesn't really matter.

While you never got the sense that Penn could actually win, neither were you left with the feeling that Villanova, on its only bus trip to the Palestra this season, was about to put things away.

With 8 1/2 minutes to go in the first half, the Quakers (4-4) led the 12th-ranked Wildcats (7-1) by one. At the half, 'Nova's lead was seven. Nearly 8 minutes later, it remained that way. The biggest lead for the Wildcats would be 13, twice, the last with just under 8 minutes to go. The Quakers would get to within seven, with just over 6 minutes left. But they just didn't have enough, and Villanova had a little too much Corey Stokes.

The final was 65-53. It was Villanova's eighth consecutive win in this series. The Wildcats have won 23 of their last 25 against the four other city teams they play every year. They will be at La Salle Sunday. They've beaten the Explorers the last eight meetings.

Penn hasn't beaten a Top 25 team since 1998 (Temple), although Cornell was No. 22 in the coaches' poll when it lost here last season. The Quakers haven't beaten a Big 5 opponent since January 2007 (also Temple, in former coach Fran Dunphy's return).

Last December, the margin was 38.

"To be quite honest, we prepared to win the game," said Penn's Jerome Allen, who played for Dunphy and is in his first full season as the Quakers' coach. "There's no sense of . . . we came close, or kept it respectable. Absolutely none. You're talking to the wrong person. I don't care. That would be selling [my guys] short.

"To win a game at this level, you have to be locked in and focused for 40 minutes, hold on to your principles."

Still, it was Villanova's lowest point total so far.

"I have to give them credit," said Wildcats coach Jay Wright. "They were really active in their zone. It reminded me of Syracuse . . .

"Thank God for seniors."

Especially after he lost sophomore point guard Maalik Wayns with 1:22 to go in the first half, when he hit his head on the floor after taking a charge in front of his basket. The Wildcats played the rest of the way without him.

"I think he's fine," Wright said. "We were just being overly cautious. They don't think he has a concussion."

Senior guard Corey Fisher did not start, after getting into an argument with Wright at Sunday's practice. Fisher, you might recall, didn't start in last March's NCAA opener. Neither did Scottie Reynolds. Both had violated a minor team rule. Fisher got in that time around the first television timeout. This time, he went missed the first 2:15.

"He has to know, as a senior captain, you just can't do that," Wright said. "It's that simple."

Fortunately, Stokes played 35 minutes. He finished with 34 points, 12 more than his previous career high. He made 11 of 15 shots, 5-for-9 from the arc and 7-for-8 at the foul line. His team needed just about all of that.

Not bad, for a guy who was sick on Monday and Tuesday.

"My team needed me," Stokes said. "I had to fight through it, for them. I had a sore throat, dizziness. It was a 24-hour virus, or something like that . . .

"I try to come out every night with that type of confidence."

The only other Wildcat to score in double figures was senior Antonio Pena, who had 16 to go with a team-best eight rebounds.

"We ask [Stokes] to do so many other things for us," Wright said. "You wonder if we're asking him to do too much, and it's affecting his shot."

"Whatever coach asks, I'm going to do," Stokes responded. "No matter what it is. I just kept saying 'Attitude.' It's what we have to do."

Fisher made only one field goal, the first of the second half, on six attempts. He also had six assists, five steals and five turnovers.

Penn's Zack Rosen, a high-school teammate of Stokes who was recruited by Wright, had 20 points (7-for-14) and five assists. Jack Eggleston (4-for-8) scored a dozen.

"We had more than enough opportunities to win," Rosen said. "We didn't come though. It was there. That's disappointing."

The Quakers are off until Dec. 22, at Delaware.

"You can see on film that they're getting better every game," Wright said. "They're finally understanding what it takes to win. That's where we're sometimes lacking."

The Wildcats had 12 more boards, which you expected. And they converted nine more free throws, also not a surprise. They've got McDonald's All-Americans, even when they're depleted. But the Quakers are no longer the group that struggled just to win six times last season. And Allen wants a lot more, which should be even better news.

Jasner tribute

Before the game, the Palestra crowd, players and coaches observed a moment of silence for Daily News basketball writer Phil Jasner, who passed away Friday at 68.