Sat, Feb 25, 2006 - Page 19 News List

Cincinnati gives Villanova a challenge

AMERICAN BASKETBALL It was no cakewalk for the second-ranked Wildcats as they struggled to defeat the Bearcats by two points and boost their Big East record to 12-1

AP , CINCINNATI, OHIOAND LOS ANGELESAP, DALLAS, TEXASAP, STILLWATER, OKLAHOMA

Villanova's Kyle Lowry, right, shoots over Cincinnati's Cedrick McGowan during the first half in Cincinnati, Ohio, on Thursday.

PHOTO: AP

Pick. Pass. Layup. Villanova's winning basket came just that easy.

Nothing else did.

Randy Foye had 25 points and Dante Cunningham scored off an inbounds play with 3.2 seconds left, leading No. 2 Villanova to its 11th straight win on Thursday night, 74-72 over Cincinnati.

The Wildcats (22-2, 12-1) wasted a 12-point lead down the stretch before pulling out a win that kept them in control of the Big East and gave them a taste of what comes next.

Playing with a No. 2 ranking for the first time in 10 years, Villanova also extended a few notable streaks. The Wildcats matched the best start in school history -- they also did it in 1937-1938 -- and set a school record with their 11th straight win in the Big East.

"Teams play at another level against us, and we're learning to handle that," coach Jay Wright said.

They had to fight off the temptation to look past this one. The Wildcats go to Connecticut on Sunday for a rematch with the third-ranked Huskies, the team they beat on Feb. 13 to take control of the Big East.

Their rematch shapes up as a game to decide the regular-season title, and the Wildcats know what to expect.

"Cincinnati plays as hard as any team in the Big East, and this environment is as difficult as any in the Big East," Wright said. "We're going to see the same thing Sunday. It's like we set this up for perfect preparation."

On the other side, this one meant a lot to Cincinnati (18-10, 7-7), which went into a nosedive after forward Armein Kirkland tore a knee ligament on Jan. 9. Four wins in the last six games put the Bearcats back in the running for an NCAA tournament berth.

A victory over Villanova -- the highest-ranked opponent to play in Cincinnati's 17-year-old arena -- would have underscored their worthiness.

With a late 16-4 run led by power forward Eric Hicks, the Bearcats showed they had enough to keep up, not quite enough to pull it out.

"Either they're overrated or we're underrated, one of the two," Cincinnati point guard Devan Downey said.

Hicks, playing on two sprained ankles, made a pair of free throws and a putback that gave Cincinnati its first lead since the opening minutes, 72-70. Foye's free throws tied it with 53.9 seconds left, and Downey was called for a charge on Shane Clark.

On an inbounds play under the basket, Cunningham broke free and made an uncontested layup from the right side for only his second basket of the game.

"That's a play we run all the time," said Foye, who added a career-high 14 rebounds. "We have plays for 7 seconds left and plays for 4 seconds left. We just ran the play, and they left Dante wide open."

He came off a pick and had no one guarding him.

"It was a simple screen and we handled it poorly," interim coach Andy Kennedy said. "All five guys mishandled it and, as a result, we gave up a layup."

Hicks' 3-pointer at the buzzer was too hard. He finished with 21 points. Allan Ray added 19 points for Villanova.

For most of the game, it didn't figure to be so close. At the outset, the Bearcats struggled under the pressure -- some self-imposed, most of it from Villanova's energetic, four-guard lineup. Cincinnati made only three baskets in the first 12 minutes, going 3-for-17 from the field while Villanova pulled ahead by 11 points.

Foye and Ray had 13 apiece in the first half, which ended with Villanova up 40-34.

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