La Salle coach John Giannini spent the days prior to the Explorers' game against Villanova urging his players to seize the moment against the team he called "the gold standard in the Big Five right now."

For a majority of the 40 minutes, the Explorers looked ready Sunday to heed their coach's call, spurred by a loud, capacity house at Tom Gola Arena.

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But the 12th-ranked Wildcats, who trailed by eight with a little over five minutes to play, fueled a comeback with three-point shooting, made free throws down the stretch, and posted an 84-81 victory over the Explorers in an entertaining and exhausting City Series matchup.

Sophomore Maalik Wayns, who returned to practice Saturday after suffering a head injury against Penn, gave the Wildcats (8-1, 3-0 Big Five) the lead for good on a three-point play with 1 minute, 9 seconds remaining. Corey Fisher secured the win with three free throws in the closing seconds.

"We're on the road, we know stuff's going to go bad, the crowd's going to go crazy," Fisher said. "They were going to come out with a lot of energy but it's just who's going to keep playing hard until the game's over. That's something we take pride in. Our whole team stepped up."

Giannini and the Explorers (6-4, 0-1 Big Five) were frustrated. Sophomore Aaric Murray, their leading scorer with a 16.6-point average, was limited to 12 minutes by foul trouble and managed just four points.

"I don't know," Giannini said. "The kid certainly isn't pushing and shoving out there. How nice would it be to have that kid play a little bit more, you know? So I'm frustrated. I'm upset."

With the Wildcats making just one of their first 15 shots from the floor, the Explorers took an early 20-6 lead.

Villanova, however, kept chipping away and got its initial lead of the game by the 4:45 mark of the first half on one of Dominic Cheek's four three-pointers in the game.

Nevertheless, the Explorers, with freshman guards Tyreek Duren and Sam Mills playing like veterans, appeared ready to take control when they led by 74-66 with 5:23 to play while Villanova's offense appeared stuck in neutral.

But the Wildcats started knocking down shots. Cheek had two three-pointers and Corey Stokes one, while Antonio Pena completed a conventional three-point play in a 12-2 run that put 'Nova up, 78-76, at the 3:08 mark.

Mills knocked down a trey to give the Explorers their last lead. Wayns then drove the lane on Mills and hit the layup and the free throw that followed for the 11th and final lead change of the game.

After sinking three free throws, Fisher missed a fourth attempt, giving the Explorers a chance. They got two looks at threes, but 6-11 Maurice Sutton blocked Duren's try, and Mills' shot hit the front rim at the buzzer.

"I give them a lot of credit," Wildcats coach Jay Wright said of La Salle. "I'm just proud of our seniors. Maalik didn't practice until [Saturday]. Corey Fisher dominated the game. I'm lucky I have those guys with me."

Wayns led 'Nova with 19 points. Fisher added 16 points and eight assists, and Stokes also contributed 16 points. Jerrell Williams led the Explorers with 20.

The Wildcats outscored the Explorers by 27-11 from the line. On three-pointers, which they had been making at only a 29 percent clip, they went 45 percent (9 of 20) Sunday.

And Giannini, who had La Salle go zone because Wayns and Fisher kept driving by their defenders, was left scratching his head.

"That was Villanova's difference today," he said. "It would have been nice if we got some good luck and they might have missed a couple of those threes, and it would be a very different [postgame] press conference."

Contact staff writer Joe Juliano at 215-854-4494 or jjuliano@phillynews.com.