CINCINNATI -- A narrow escape left No. 9 Villanova feeling a whole lot better.
Scottie Reynolds scored all of his 17 points in the second half Tuesday night and the Wildcats let most of their late 16-point lead slip away before holding on for a 77-73 victory over Cincinnati.
The struggling Wildcats (24-5, 13-4 Big East) got their second win in their last five games, and it didn't come easy. It wasn't in hand until Reynolds made two free throws with 3.2 seconds left.
Frightening, but satisfying.
"We feel really good about this win," Reynolds said.
Villanova was coming off a 95-77 drubbing at No. 1 Syracuse, a low point of its season. The Wildcats felt an urgency to get back to winning in the last week before tournament time.
How badly did they need it?
"Really bad," coach Jay Wright said. "Hey, it was a tough loss [at Syracuse]. It didn't kill us, but it was a tough loss. And what you get to recover from that is being at Cincinnati against a team that's hungry and tough and physical. It got a little crazy at the end."
Down by 16 points with six minutes left, Cincinnati (16-13, 7-10) regrouped for a 14-point run that cut it to 66-65 with 2:17 to go. Reggie Redding hit two free throws and a 3-pointer that blunted the comeback. Reynolds then finished it off with the last two free throws.
"We kept a great attitude during the whole thing," said Redding, one of six Villanova players in double figures. "Honestly, we practice that. We practice playing in the most difficult situations. Things weren't going our way for a couple of minutes."
Rashad Bishop had 19 points and Deonta Vaughn, one of two Cincinnati seniors honored before the game, kept the Bearcats in it with 14 points in the first half. He finished with 18 points, two off his season high.
"I thought I played pretty good," Vaughn said. "It's a terrible way to end your career, at home with a loss. Nobody wants to lose on senior night. I'm proud of us as a team that we didn't give up. We didn't make shots, but we kept it going. We just missed some shots."
Cincinnati went 7-of-30 from behind the arc, which was the difference.
The Bearcats honored their two seniors -- forward Steve Toyloy and Vaughn -- and wore their special all-red jerseys for a game they desperately needed. They set a goal of making the NCAA tournament for the first time since 2005, Bob Huggins' final season as coach.
They have faded down the stretch, bringing criticism for coach Mick Cronin, who publicly set the goal. A fan in a front row behind one of the baskets held up a cardboard sign that said: "WANTED: A New UC Coach 4 2010." Another sign read: "Fire Cronin."
Cronin's job seems to be safe after four seasons of digging the Bearcats out of their post-Huggins mess. That NCAA tournament appearance looks to be another year away, too, because Cincinnati has failed to close out games all season.
"These guys have been through a lot of heartbreak this year," Cronin said.
The Wildcats are headed toward tournament time with some issues of their own.
Vaughn wouldn't let Villanova pull away in the first half. He had a three-point play off a fastbreak and then hit a long 3-pointer that hit the rim, bounced up and fell down with five seconds left, tying it 31-all at halftime. Villanova managed only one field goal in the last eight minutes of the half.
One major factor: Reynolds took only one shot in the half and failed to score. The senior guard averages 18.9 points per game and is Villanova's third all-time scorer.
The Wildcats wanted to get him going, and it didn't take long. Reynolds hit a long 3 in the opening minute of the second half, helping the Wildcats go ahead to stay 36-31.
"I was being aggressive in the first half," Reynolds said. "I just didn't want to force anything. I always want to take my shots when they're there. When I find a shot that's available, I've got to take it."
Villanova seemed to be in control when Redding's 3 and Corey Fisher's two free throws built the lead to 64-48 with 6:19 left. But Cincinnati broke with its habit of fading down the stretch and made it a game. Bishop's putback ended the 12-0 run and cut it to 66-65.
After Redding's free throws and 3-pointer, Cincinnati made one last push. Lance Stephenson made a three-point play with seven seconds left, and a turnover set up Bishop's 3 that cut it to 75-73 with 3.7 seconds to go.
Reynolds was fouled on the inbounds pass and made both free throws.