Yesterday afternoon, Villanova became the highest-ranked team to ever play at the Gola Arena.

And the No. 12 Wildcats nearly became the highest-ranked team to ever lose there.

For the third time this season, La Salle gave a Top 25 opponent all it could handle. Yet once again, the only thing the Explorers took away from it was another close call.

The Wildcats, who trailed by 14 after 8 1/2 minutes and by eight with 5:23 left, would bus home with an 84-81 win before a sellout crowd. But not before freshman Sam Mills, who had made his first four three-pointers, hurriedly let another one go from 28 feet straightaway that hit the front of the rim.

It was Villanova's ninth consecutive win in the series, and 24th victory in its last 26 Big 5 games.

"This is what the Big 5 is all about," said Villanova coach Jay Wright. "It's a little crazy. But it's classy before the game and after. These games create so much emotion in everyone. On the bench, you can't relax. It's really unique. Big East games are intense. I'm not saying this is more or less, just different. We look at that as a positive thing.

"You feel like something magical's going on."

La Salle coach John Giannini, understandably, was feeling anything but, even if it was the most points Villanova had given up so far.

"My emotion right now is extreme frustration," he said. "We left so many plays on the court, at both ends, really individual stuff. We've just got to get a little better.

"I'm upset that we're making the same mistakes. Frankly, I feel like we blew it. They're the gold standard in the Big 5 right now. And you only play them once each season. It's not like they're coming here again next week. It's a one-time shot.

"As good as they are, we've played other teams like them [Baylor, No. 17 at the time, and Missouri, No. 11]. They shot better than they've been shooting it, or it could be a different press conference."

Actually, the Wildcats missed 14 of their first 15, including all five from the arc. After that they went 23-for-38, 9-for-15. More importantly, they converted 27 of 34 free throws.

La Salle, which was 11-for-13 at the foul line, finished 31-for-66, 8-for-18 from three. Against many teams, that might be enough.

In the second half, the Explorers (6-4) shot 55.2 percent, 71.4 from three. Villanova (8-1) shot 53.8 after intermission, 44.4 on triples.

The Explorers, who play their next four at home beginning Friday with Bucknell, got only four points in 12 minutes from top scorer Aaric Murray, who had foul issues. And second-leading scorer Ruben Guillandeaux sat out much of the final 15 minutes after suffering a leg injury.

But the Explorers, after falling behind by five early in the second half, got some big efforts from Jerrell Williams (20 points, seven rebounds), Tyreek Duren (13 points, seven assists) and Mills (14 points). They still needed a little more.

"We have good, [young] players," Giannini said. "I expect them to play good. And they're going to get better. They don't get there fast by me telling them that they came close and that's OK. We needed better. That's all learning."

Villanova starts three seniors on a team that's once again expected to be a factor come March. Corey Stokes and Corey Fisher each had 16, with eight coming in each half. Antonio Pena added 13. Maalik Wayns scored 19. Fellow soph Dominic Cheek contributed 14 off the bench, including back-to-back treys that put Villanova back in front with 3 minutes to go.

La Salle went ahead one last time, on a three by Mills at 1:46. At 1:09, Wayns hit a driving layup, drew the foul and completed the three-point play. It was Villanova's fifth consecutive three-point score (three jumpers, the others the old-fashioned way).

Fisher made two freebies at 13.5. Duren matched those two seconds later. At 10.1, Fisher could only convert one of two. Duren's three from the key was blocked by Maurice Sutton, setting up the closing inbounds sequence from in front of the La Salle bench.

This one probably deserved at least 5 more minutes. But it wasn't to be.

"I'm lucky I've got these guys with me," said Wright, whose team gets Delaware at the Wells Fargo Center on Saturday night. "This team needed to do this together."

Last season, they could always look to Scottie Reynolds. Now, it's got to be someone else. And that doesn't mean it always has to be Fisher. Or any of the other 4-year guys.

"We know stuff is going to go bad, and the crowd's going to go crazy," Fisher explained. "We just have to keep playing hard. That's something we take pride in.

"Our whole team can do something. I might not have it. We have to help each other out, when someone's down."

La Salle tried its best to do likewise. It takes time. Unfortunately, the next opportunity against the Main Liners is 12 months away.