REGGIE REDDING sat back in a chair with the relaxed smile of someone who almost died in his dreams.

"Last night?" he said yesterday, repeating a question. "Incredible. Most fun I've had in a while."

They talk all the time about how sport mirrors life, but the highs and lows don't come in the narrow time increments of Villanova's run to a Final Four berth.


remember they were down by 10 at the half to American? Anyone think when Villanova went up by four with 20 seconds left Saturday that Pitt would have it tied 14.5 seconds later, after Redding's ill-advised fullcourt inbounds pass became a turnover and was converted into the tying free throws?

"Oh, my Lord," said Searcy Blakenship, Dante Cunningham's mother, as she walked into the Pavilion yesterday.

"They tried to kill us," said Dwayne Anderson's mother, Michelle, walking alongside her.

"It was like a roller coaster," said Redding. One without brakes maybe.

He was in danger of becoming one of those people he has grown up hearing about, a name that sends shudders through generations. Mitch Williams. Danny Ozark. Gene Mauch. He would be on that list, college division.

"No doubt," said his coach, Jay Wright. "But I wasn't thinking about the Philly thing. I wasn't thinking a Gene Mauch thing. I wasn't going that far. I am now. I'm glad I didn't go there then."

What Wright did instead is part of why this team survived it, why Redding was able to make a gutsy pass to Cunningham that triggered Scottie Reynolds' mad dash to highlight eternity. As Reynolds and Cunningham both noted yesterday - after thanking fans who waited for hours for their delayed charter from Boston - 'Nova's charge to this point has been a 2-year process, full of games like the one on Saturday.

Said Cunningham: "All those close games that we had to make a defensive stop and then we had to make or execute on offense, all those that we could have won and missed, it's all paying off now."

"We give them that quote all the time from Franklin Delano Roosevelt about the man in the arena," Wright said. "It's always harder to be the guy in there making the decisions. You can't fear making a mistake and then coming into the film room and getting yelled at for it. You've got to understand that we understand how hard it is to be out there making the decisions. And whatever decision you make, especially end-of-the-game situations, we're going to trust you.

"So after he did that, I wanted to kill him, No. 1. But, No. 2, I'm also saying to myself that we have to make sure he feels good about making decisions and having the guts to make that play. Because that last play takes guts."

That final play was a busted one, said Wright. Redding was supposed to get it to Reynolds, or Cunningham breaking across, or a phantom third guy who wasn't where he supposed to be. Wright wouldn't name him, but since Anderson and Shane Clark were the other players out there, you have a 50 percent chance of guessing right. Most important, though, is that Redding didn't panic and that this time, his throw was perfectly placed.

"If I was thinking about what I did the last play, I probably would have made a bad play again," Redding said. "I tried to forget about it and focus on the play that came up. I've been playing basketball for a while. That's not the first time I made a bad play. If you let that get to you . . . I don't think any athlete would be at this level right now."

He's right, of course, which is why sports really don't mirror life. Bad decisions and big mistakes cling to most of us mere mortals for days, weeks, years. Yes, these guys can run faster, jump higher, shoot better, but dealing mentally with the pressure has turned many superstars into dolts, and is often learned and not inherited.

"I used to dwell on losses all the time," Reynolds said. "In high school when we lost the state championship I didn't go to high school for like 3 weeks. The policemen were coming to my house to take me to school.

"When I came here, Mike Nardi kind of sat me down, because he was the same way. And he said, 'You've got to go to the next game, the next play, anything. Next shot, next assist, you can't dwell on things because there's always better things to come. If you're always looking in the past those better things are never going to come . . . ' "

With 5.5 seconds left Saturday, the ball was in Redding's hands and Reynolds was trying desperately, vainly at first, to break free of coverage. The worst kind of Philly story, the one we once assumed was as natural as stress, seemed imminent.

Redding looked left, right, left, then back right again, and let the ball go high in the air.

"Option 4," said Wright.

"So he did what Donovan can't often do?" I asked.

"Oh, man," said the coach, laughing. "You're really going Philly now." *

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