As his teammates huddled around him to begin the second half, Villanova senior Will Sheridan yelled, "This is our half."

That begs the question, who owned the first one?

It certainly wasn't Cincinnati. The Bearcats spent 11 minutes, 33 seconds compiling 10 turnovers and scoring not a single point en route to a 64-48 loss to the Wildcats at the Pavilion.

Villanova was led by Mike Nardi (16 points), while Dante Cunningham chipped in 11.

That was almost enough.

When Bob Huggins finally got his walking papers at Cincinnati, he clearly packed up his toys and took them with him. The Bearcats, the weakest link in the Big East, are a long way from being respectable, let alone good. They couldn't shoot, couldn't pass and simply didn't rebound.

The best entry pass they threw all night ended up in Villanova coach Jay Wright's lap. The most dramatic question during the game was when - or if - the Bearcats might reach the 20-point plateau (it took 24:07).

Not exactly rewarding fare for the hearty fans who ditched their Valentines to trudge through the snow for this one.

"This was the second game in a row where we came out and really executed at the start of the game," Wright said. "We're still learning how to play with a lead, but I like the way we're starting games."

At least for the players, a nice little cakewalk is always welcome amid the rigors of February, particularly one that put the Wildcats above .500 in conference play for the first time this season.

But this wasn't exactly the sort of tune-up Villanova (18-7, 6-5 Big East) needed as it prepares for a soaring No. 14 Georgetown at the Wachovia Center on Saturday and a date with No. 12 Marquette in Milwaukee on Monday night.

The Hoyas have won eight in a row, blasting opponents by an average of 16.3 points per game during the streak, including 18-point differentials against both West Virginia and Marquette.

Marquette, upset losers at De Paul last night, has dropped just one conference game in the Bradley Center this year and that was the Golden Eagles' Big East home opener against Syracuse way back in early January.

"I get that idea [about using this game as a warmup], but honestly we don't look at it that way," Wright said. "Now that it's over I can see it, but we just know that any team in the Big East can beat you."

The Bearcats (10-15, 1-10), though, have had trouble doing that, winning just once in the conference this year as Mick Cronin tries to rebuild what Huggins all but destroyed.

That fact, coupled with a less-than-filled house, left last night's atmosphere a little lacking. Consider that the most excitement the student section could generate was coaxing a contestant in a pseudo "Price Is Right" contest to decide the value of cabbage.

As for the other game going on, Villanova won its fourth consecutive game but didn't exactly play great. The Wildcats' struggling offense still struggled, still unable to shoot 40 percent, and they allowed things to get a little sloppy at the end.

But that's certainly a forgivable sin when the scoreboard shows double-digits between you and the opposition.

"We've been in this position before," said Sheridan, who finished with eight points. "This team has great maturity. We play the same way all the time."

But as the 'Cats push on toward March and continue to build a stronger case for an at-large NCAA bid, they showed once more that the adage that defense wins doesn't just apply to football.

The woeful Bearcats were simply no match for a Villanova team that challenged every pass and confounded with its press. In the first half, Cincinnati sunk two quick shots, both three-pointers, to take a 6-3 lead. Then the Bearcats promptly stopped scoring for a . . . really . . . long . . . time.

According to the game clock, it 11:33. In real time, it was an eternity, featuring an exhibition of miscues that included turnovers on six consecutive possessions and nine in total before Jamual Warren finally hit a jumper with 5:34 to play until the intermission.

By then, the Wildcats had gone on a 19-0 run. By the half, the 'Cats had doubled the Bearcats in the points column and in the second half, the fans that remained had to be content with jamming to the pep band's version of "Hey Baby."

The only real riddle left to solve was why Wright insisted on leaving his starters in as late as the 5-minute mark of the second half, despite a 20-point lead and March looming.

"After we got to the 3-minute mark, I thought maybe we had taken them out too early," Wright said.

"We needed to play with a lead and execute, but, No. 1, I've been in Cincinnati's shoes before, and No. 2, we've got Georgetown coming up." *