VILLANOVA'S domination of the Big 5 was interrupted last December, by 10 points in North Philadelphia.
It happens. It just hasn't happened very often lately. Because the Wildcats have become the gold standard.
And now, they've taken back the City Series title. But not before Temple nearly took them out again last night at the Pavilion.
It was the kind of scrum you'd expect from teams that expect to be factors come March. Only once before, in 1988 at McGonigle Hall, had these two met when both were ranked. That one was a 98-86 classic, won by Temple. This didn't disappoint, either.
The No. 8 Wildcats won, 78-74. It was their 43rd consecutive victory in this building. And 25th in their last 27 against the other four Philly schools they play every season.
And Temple, which is ranked 25th, still hasn't beaten Villanova in back-to-back games since 1993 and '95, when they didn't play every year.
"One of my favorite things is to go down to Broad and Oregon on Jan. 1 [for the Mummer's Parade]," said Villanova coach Jay Wright, whose team will host Rutgers on Sunday afternoon in its Big East opener. "When I saw this game on the schedule, I knew it could possibly ruin that.
"I think both programs have such great respect for each other. They're a really good team. I think they're a better team than last year. I think we're a better team than last year. This was definitely like a Big East game."
The Wildcats (11-1) had faced only one other ranked team this season. They lost that one, 78-68, to Tennessee, then ranked 24th, on Nov. 26 in New York. And we have seen what's happened to Tennessee since then. So this was a chance for them to see where they stood heading into the conference wars.
"This was perfect timing for us, even though we knew [we could lose]," Wright insisted. "We hadn't played well against a really good team."
The Wildcats, who trailed by eight after 17 minutes, were down only one at the break. Then they opened the second half on a 16-5 run, to go up double digits. But the Owls, who open their Atlantic 10 campaign on Wednesday with Fordham on the road, scored 15 of the next 17 points to take a three-point lead with 9 minutes remaining.
Then, it was Villanova's turn once more. The Wildcats put together a 10-2 spurt that included a pair of three-pointers by Corey Stokes, who finished with a game-best 24 points. That made it 67-62. The closest the Owls got after that was two. That came in the final seconds when Villanova committed a bad foul that ended in a three-point play by Lavoy Allen and followed with a turnover that resulted in a three-point shot, also from Allen. But Temple was out of timeouts, and Maalik Wayns made two free throws at 1.4 seconds to finally put things away.
If nothing else, it was certainly entertaining.
"I think their defense toughened up toward the end, and we made some poor decisions with the ball," Temple coach Fran Dunphy said. "They pressured us, and we didn't handle it as well as we needed to.
"If we'd all made one more play, maybe we'd have come up on the different side of the ledger. I thought we did some really good things. And a couple of foolish things."
The Wildcats were able to get it done, despite the fact that Corey Fisher played only 22 minutes because of foul trouble, and scored five points on 1-for-6 shooting. But Stokes went 5-for-8 from the arc. Good thing, since his teammates missed all eight of their attempts. Wayns finished with 21, including 9-for-9 at the foul line, and added eight assists. Mouphtaou Yarou had 14 points.
"I just try to make everyone around me better and pick my spots," said Wayns, who played at Roman Catholic. "This means a lot. I grew up with a lot of those guys. Last year, they had bragging rights for the whole year. Now I get to brag back to them."
Allen had 17 of his 22 after intermission. And he played all 40 minutes, which usually is a great sign for the Owls. The problem was, they shot 10-for-33 in the second half, after converting at a 57.1 percent rate in the first 20 minutes. Juan Fernandez, who had 33 in the matchup last season, got 20 this time before fouling out late. But his last points came with a little more than 12 minutes to go. Ramone Moore scored 16, but none in the closing 10:27. He went 1-for-12 after the break. And that was just too much for the Owls to overcome. Missing five freebies in the closing 10 minutes didn't help, either.
"If we want to be good at the end of the season, we've got to beat teams like Villanova," Fernandez said.
He's not wrong. But March is still a long ways off. Both teams plan on getting better. That's the way a journey's supposed to work.
For the time being, though, it was the best college hoops this town has to offer.