Virginia very nearly joined eight other seed teams bounced out of the NCAA tournament this weekend before finally taking control in the final minutes to defeat stubborn Villanova, 54-50, in a second-round East regional game before 11,400 fans today at the Charlotte Coliseum.

Othell Wilson's two free throws with 25 seconds remaining sealed the victory for the Cavaliers (26-3), seeded first in the East. They will face Tennsessee, which defeated Virginia Commonwealth, 58-56, in a regional semifinal game Thursday at the Omni in Atlanta. Villanova finished its season at 20-11.

Despite being double- and triple-teamed in a sagging zone designed especially for him, Virginia center Ralph Sampson led all scorers with 17 points and had 12 rebounds. Jeff Lamp has 10 points and became the all-time Virginia career scorer. His total of 2,238 points is five more than that of previous record-holder Buzzy Wilkinson.

Until Lamp's two free throws put Virginia ahead, 48-47, with 4:14 to play, the Wildcats had the Atlantic Coast Conference regular-season champions in trouble. Villanova led by seven points two minutes into the second half, and only Virginia's 11-of-14 free-throw shooting and Lee Raker's outside shooting down the stretch enabled the Cavaliers to prevail.

Vaillanova's musclar defender -- John Pinone (6-foot8, 228 pounds), Alex Bradly (6-6, 200) -- worked their version of the bump and grind enough to make Sampson work for every point and rebound. The Villanova zone was packed in so tight that Sampson often has to implore his teammates to take outside shots.

Raker, the Cavaliers' best long-range shooter, could barley walk Saturday because of calcium deposits in his thigh . But he limped off the bench to rescue his mates with nine points.

Raker hit two long second-half shots and scored following an offensive rebound to tie the game at 46-46.

After Lamp's free throws, Bradley (seven points, 13 rebounds) pulled Villanova even at 48-48 with a soul shot with 3:46 to play.

A free throw by Sampson sent Virginia ahead, 49-48, with 3:23 left before Villanova committed a costly tlurnover. The patient, deliberate Big East tourney runner-up worked nearly a minute off the clock, looking for the good sure shot. It never came, as Bradley was called for traveling just as he made a move to the basket. Virginia then went into its delay game.

Now it was the Cavaliers' turn to let the clock run. Villanova's point guard, Stewart Granger (16 points and only two turnovers in 38 minutes), finally fouled Jeff Jones. He made both shots of the one-and-one and Virginia was breathing easier with a 51-48 lead with 1:12 left.

Granger, whose 22-footers from the top of the circle kept his team ahead most of the way, hit another one to give the Wildcats one more chance with 31 seconds remaining.

The one thing opponents don't want to do is send the Cavaliers to the foul line. An excellent free-throw shooting team (71 percent), Virginia scored its last eight points from the line, including Wilson's two after he was fouled with 25 seconds to go.

"I like shooting free throws," said Wilson, forced into a starting role because of Raker's injury. "So naturally my first thought was to make both. I just shot them easy."

Villanova's last shot at pulling off an upset was lost when Pione was whistled for his fifth foul for charging Raker. Raker made one of two from the line to finish the Wildcats.

"How does the leg feel?" said Raker, repeating the question. "It really hurts but it's something I'll have to live with the remainder of the playoffs."

Granger's deadly outside shooting and the aggressive Wildcat zone almost ended Virginia's season. The Cavs led, 8-2, before the Wildcats roared back to lead, 9-8. Both teams appeared tentative on offensive, particularly Virginia, and neither was able to gain momentum.

The slow pace was to Villanova's advantage, since all three of its front-court players began picking up fouls early. Their patience paid off, too. When the Cavaliers sagged back to stop Pinoe (11 points) and Bradley, Granger and Tom Sienkiewicz scored from outside.

"We knew we had to control the big guy the best we could," Villanova Coach Rollie Massimino said. "And Lamp, too. We did a good job, I thought, most of the game. But Raker came in and hit those baskets from the place we left alone a lot. And they got a couple of second shots that hurt us.

"Sampson in the middle was a problem for us, but we had to do what we do best. We're an inside-outside tean, not an outside-inside team. We were patient and waited for the good shots."

Villanova got last-second baskets from Granger and Pione and led, 27-24, at intermission.

The Wildcats continued to be patient and eventually moved out to the biggest lead either team held, at 31-24. Virginia was having little success getting the ball in to Sampson, and Wilson, Jones and Lamp couldn't hit. The Cavaliers also committed several turnovers in the early minutes of the second half. $ "A lot of those errors weren't forced -- we did them ourselves," said Jones. "We were tentative in shooting the ball and stopped attacking their zone. When we did, Ralph scored. We just tightened up and worked for better shots."

Slowly, the Cavaliers began to assert themselves. Raker hit two straight and Ricky Stokes scored on a break-away as Virginia closed to 42-38. The Wildcats started clock-watching, and before long Virginia had pulled ahead, 48-47.