(Published in Daily News, March 8, 1985)

NEW YORK - Villanova coach Rollie Massimino finally can kick off his shoes and relax a while.

His Wildcats all but wrapped up a sixth consecutive NCAA tournament bid last night with a 69-61 victory over Pitt in the first round of the Big East Conference Tournament at Madison Square Garden. The win improved the fourth-seeded Wildcats' record to 19-9 and lifted them into tonight's 9 o'clock semifinal against regular-season champion St. John's (26-2).

"We've been very competitive against them in both games," Massimino said. "In fact, we were up eight with five minutes to go at the Spectrum and then Chris (Mullin) came up with three great plays in a row.

"(On) one, he stole a rebound, took it up (against Ed Pinckney) and got a three-point play."

Mullin, everybody's All-America, bailed out the second-ranked Redmen that day, scoring 17 of his 21 points in the second half during a 70-68 nationally televised victory. St. John's won, 76-71, in Jamaica, N.Y.

The close losses to the ranking powers in the Big East might have taken their toll on this team. But Massimino and his players are talking enthusiastically again about taking another crack at the Redmen, now that the worst is over.

For close to a week, the Wildcats had lived with the pressure of knowing that last night's game could be critical to their chances of receiving an NCAA bid. Villanova was coming off an embarrassing 85-62 loss to the Panthers last Saturday afternoon on CBS-TV. And Massimino added to his starters' embarrassment by removing them with 17 minutes to go and letting them sit for the remainder of the afternoon.

Massimino knew it was a psychological risk, but he was willing to gamble that his upperclassmen would respond.

"Obviously, I think we have excellent character on this team," Massimino said. "I didn't take them out Saturday because it was a personal vendetta or that we were going to make them so high (for last night's rematch) ...

"There was a reason for it and that's a philosophy of ours. I thought we executed well after being down, which, again, shows that character people don't fold the second time around."

Villanova had its chances to collapse after upstart Pitt (17-11) jumped off to a 21-13 lead with 6:42 to play in the first half. But the Wildcats, who looked tentative at the beginning, settled down and eventually wore down Roy Chipman's young team.

Forwards Dwayne McClain and Harold Pressley each scored 19 points for Villanova, which shot a sizzling 16-for-28 in the second half. Lead guard Gary McLain added 14 points and six assists and handled Pitt's 1-3-1 pressure much more effectively than he did in last Saturday's fiasco.

Pinckney, the 6-9 1/2 center, also came up big. He recorded 11 points and nine rebounds and did a masterful job of bottling up Charles Smith, Pitt's dangerous 6-9 freshman. Smith, who scored 18 points against the Wildcats last Saturday, had only 13 last night and wasn't much of a factor after he picked up his third personal with 3:17 to play in the first half.

Pitt's troubles were further compounded by its 21 turnovers, which can be attributed, at least in part, to its playing without a true lead guard.

"I think the big difference was the fact Villanova was playing with some veteran players and, at a key time in the second half, I just didn't think we executed as well as we wanted to," Chipman said. "We had called a timeout. We wanted to get the ball inside and, for various reasons, we just couldn't do that.

"We sort of lived on the perimeter and I don't think you can do that in this kind of a game. But I really think the two (McClain and McLain) and Pinckney really made a difference."

All three are seniors, which means this is their last hurrah. They want to make the most of it.

"We have never won a Big East championship," Pinckney said. "And we want to give it our best shot."

It will take at least that to stop stampeding Georgetown. But the 'Cats are willing to take it one step at a time, starting tonight with St. John's.

"You've got to play a great game, do just about everything right to beat them," McLain said. "And you've got to contain Chris Mullin."

Mullin contributed 22 points, 7 rebounds, 9 assists and 7 steals last night as the Redmen waltzed past Providence, 90-62, in the first game of the evening doubleheader. Mullin has always played well in the Garden, which must seem like a second home to him by now.

"It won't be easy playing them in New York," McClain said, "but I don't think it will affect us."

Just as Pitt's fast start didn't seem to affect Villanova last night.

"We just kept our composure," McClain said. "When we were down early, we just played with poise. We knew there was a lot of time left and we would have time to get back in the game."

McLain probably gave Villanova its biggest lift when he made a 45-foot bomb just before halftime to tie the game at 30. McLain took an inbounds pass with three seconds left, crossed halfcourt with two dribbles and launched a rainbow that kissed the glass and fell through the net.

"The shot was actually designed for Eddie (Pinckney)," McLain said. "But they were kind of denying him the ball fairly well. So I got the ball and threw it up and, with the help of God, it went in."

With the help of God and the Garden timer, who conveniently forgot to start the clock. When McLain's shot sailed through, there were still three seconds remaining.

"It did seem like the clock was stuck on three for a while," McLain said with a smile.

McLain could afford to smile again. He had survived the three-day boot camp that Massimino put the troops through after last weekend.

"There was a lot of pressure, whether you wanted it or not," McLain said.

Massimino obviously wanted it. He went up to the blackboard in the locker room before the game and crossed off everything his assistants had written on it.

"I said, 'Let's forget this. Let's just go out and play.' "

Villanova took control of the game early in the second half when it scored 10 consecutive points to take a 46-39 lead with 11:33 to go. McClain had three field goals in that stretch, including a slam dunk off a fastbreak pass from McLain.

Pitt cut the lead to 48-45, but then Pressley scored on a three-point play to put things back in perspective, putting the Panthers back on the fence as far as an NCAA bid is concerned.

For now, it looks as if the balance of power has been preserved at least for one more season.