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Cunningham's late free throws lift Villanova

Jan 6, 2008 - 9:09 PM VILLANOVA, Pennsylvania (Ticker) -- It was a typical Big East game.

Dante Cunningham sank two free throws with 10 seconds remaining as No. 16 Villanova held off 13th ranked Pittsburgh, 64-63, on Sunday at the Pavilion.

Freshman Malcolm Grant had a game-high 22 points for Villanova (11-2, 1-1 Big East) and fellow first-year player Antonio Pena added 12.

Pittsburgh (12-2, 0-1) had four scorers in double digits, led by Sam Young with 16 points. Keith Benjamin chipped in 15.

DeJuan Blair had 12 points to go along with a game-high 15 rebounds and fellow freshman Gilbert Brown chipped in with 10 points for the Panthers in their conference opener.

Villanova won despite being outrebounded by a 43-31 margin and shooting only 34 percent (20-of-59) from the field. However, the Wildcats scored 28 points off 22 turnovers by the Panthers.

"It was a game that could have gone either way," Pittsburgh coach Jamie Dixon said. "We did the things we wanted to do defensively. We outrebounded them by 12 and held them to 34 percent shooting. We didn't take care of the ball well enough in tough situations."

In a back-and-forth game, the Panthers were leading, 63-62, when Cunningham was fouled in the lane by Tyrell Biggs. Cunningham made the first free throw and, after a Pittsburgh time out, sank the second.

"We practice (free throws) every day," said Cunningham, who finished with six points and nine rebounds. "We shoot free throws and talk about game situations. My heart wasn't racing."

On the ensuing possession, Ronald Ramon lost the ball with two seconds left as he was hounded by Pena. That sealed the Wildcats' first conference win after dropping their Big East opener at DePaul on Thursday.

"If we had lost, at least we competed," Villanova coach Jay Wright said. "We didn't against DePaul. There's a lot of things we need to do to get better."

Villanova got a scare moments before Cunningham's game-winning free throws when Grant crumpled to the floor with 15 seconds remaining after missing a shot. He had to be helped off the court, but it was later revealed that he was suffering from leg cramps.

Pittsburgh used an 11-4 run at the start of the second half to take a 41-34 lead. However, Villanova answered with an 11-4 spurt of its own to knot the contest, 45-45, with 11:45 remaining.

Grant later capped a 10-0 outburst with a 3-pointer to give the Wildcats a 55-49 advantage with 6:22 left. But the Panthers hung around and Blair sank a jumper with 1:36 left to give Pitt a 63-62 advantage.

"(The game) was physical," Blair said. "That's the way I like to play."

Although Pitt has won five of the last eight meetings against Villanova, it has dropped six in a row to the Wildcats at the Pavilion dating to January 22, 1994.

Villanova got off to a slow shooting start from the field and Pittsburgh took advantage.

Trailing 10-8, the Panthers outscored the Wildcats by a 16-6 margin to take their biggest lead of the first half at 24-16 with 4:38 remaining. Biggs and Blair each had five points during the outburst.

But Grant provided instant offense for Villanova, scoring the last six points of a 10-0 run that gave the Wildcats a 26-24 advantage with 2:34 left. Grant was fouled on a 3-point shot attempt and sank all three free throws before draining a 3-pointer.

"I just wanted to give my team energy in any way possible," Grant said. "I just learned the Big East is very physical. I think we understand now that we need to bring it every game."

The teams exchanged the leads again as Blair converted a conventional three-point play to regain the lead for the Panthers before Grant answered for Villanova with a layup.

Benjamin drilled a 3-pointer with five seconds left that tied the game, 30-30, at the half.

Villanova improved to 7-2 in nine all-time games between ranked teams at the Pavilion.