IT WAS PRETTY much Saint Joseph's basketball game to win.

The Hawks went up by five points with just over 2 minutes left Tuesday night at the Pavilion, a place where they hadn't won in three tries going back to 2004 and their Final Eight group. It was their biggest advantage since late in the first half, and the biggest for either side since Villanova led by that much early in the second.

From that point on, everything changed. Maybe it was the karma, much of it centered around the Hawks' Halil Kanacevic, who midway through the second half had done some things to get the crowd back into it and help turn a three-point edge into a three-point deficit.

Anyway, he fouled James Bell some 25 feet from the basket, and Bell converted the one-and-one. Then the Hawks turned it over. Then JayVaughn Pinkston scored on a follow. Then Halil missed two foul shots. Then Bell, who was 1-for-5 from the arc, made a three from the left corner with 28 seconds showing to put the Wildcats, who were 1-for-9 from the arc in the second half until then, in front for the first time in almost 6 minutes.

It was the first time Villanova had scored on three straight possessions all evening. Then the Hawks, after calling a timeout at 10.2 seconds, got tied up in the corner. But they retained the ball, since the arrow was pointing their way. Didn't matter. Halil inbounded from the right corner, but with time running out he tried to throw the ball off Mo Sutton. Problem was it hit Halil on the way out. So 'Nova got it back and Bell hit two more freebies to officially end it.

Got all that?

Villanova 65, St. Joe's 61.

It happens.

Did we mention that Villanova (6-4), which won Saturday at Penn, had lost its last two on campus, to Columbia and Temple? And didn't the Wildcats used to almost never lose there?

"We didn't talk about it," said coach Jay Wright, whose guys will next host Delaware on Sunday. "But when it's over . . . You can talk about situations like this all you want. But until you do it together, there's nothing to build on.

"Until [the end], I thought we played well. We're on a different path, man. We have to keep a progression [going]. I do think we got better tonight. But you don't want to get too high or low this early. But it was something we needed to do . . . execute and show guts down the stretch."

Then there's the other side of the story.

"I told the team we acted immature at times," said St. Joe's coach Phil Martelli. "I am [surprised]. I told someone the other day that I really liked their maturity. In the end, we put the ball in wrong spots. It wasn't just the turnovers [18], but some of the decisions."

The Hawks (5-3), who only average a little under 12 turnovers, got 22 points from Langston Galloway and 16 from leading scorer Carl Jones, the other half of their backcourt. But Jones shot 4-for-14, 2-for-8 from deep. They did have 16 assists on 18 field goals, but missed seven of 22 at the line. And they didn't get very much from the two subs they used.

"The game is all in the numbers," Martelli said. "That doesn't change. So . . . it's on me to figure out a way to get something out of the bench. This was the final test of our first semester. I'd give ourselves a failure."

They're now off until Dec. 22, when Fairfield visits.

Bell and Pinkston topped the Wildcats, who had 15 offensive rebounds and took 14 more shots, with 12 points each on a combined 7-for-22. Five others had from six to nine. One of them was sophomore Achraf Yacoubou, who had a career-high 13 against the Quakers. This time he had nine, to go with a career-best seven boards, in 19 minutes off the bench. It makes a difference, as did Sutton's eight and nine in 17 as a starter.

When you're picked to finish 12th in the Big East, you take anything you can get.

"Coach called a play in the huddle," is how Bell described his game-winning shot. "I was actually the last look on the play . . . He puts me in great position to do what I do best. I wasn't thinking about [being 1-for-5]. I had to step up. It was like the next play to me. We [still] had to get a stop at the other end."

In their improbable overtime comeback win against Purdue a month ago in New York, Bell hit two decisive threes in the extra period. He'd been 1-for-8 before that, too. Maybe it's going to be that kind of season.

"I think it's a good victory, because we showed each other we can come together," said Pinkston. "We struggled a little bit, but in the end we did what we had to do. We use that word attitude."

They always have. But when you're coming off a 13-19 season, it can change some people's perspectives.

"I know what the fans expect," Wright acknowledged, again. "We've got so much to learn. It's so much fun to be in a game like this, playing against a great opponent. When you're coming off a 25-win season, you expect [to do that]. But it's just part of our building process."

A good part, even if it didn't look like it was going to be.