The Bearcats (22-9, 12-6) got late 3s from Sean Kilpatrick and JaQuon Parker to snap a tie game and send them to their fifth win in six games. Kilpatrick had 13 points and Parker 11.
The Bearcats made only 7 of 22 but started connecting down the stretch to put the game away.
The Bearcats clinched one of four double-byes in this week's conference tournament in New York once Marquette beat Georgetown. They play Thursday.
Gates became the seventh player in Cincinnati history to reach 1,400 career points and 850 career rebounds. The Bearcats won 12 conference games for the first time since joining the Big East.
Kilpatrick, who missed his first four 3-point attempts, connected on one with 4:13 left to snap a tie game and make it 61-58. Parker followed with his first 3 the lead was six.
Dixon followed with yet another timely 3 for a five-point lead that seemed to clinch it. But Wayns rushed down and buried his fifth 3-pointer of the game that made it 67-65 with 40.1 seconds left.
Nova cranked the full court pressure and nearly forced a turnover when Cincinnati fumbled - but quickly recovered - the ball and called timeout.
Dixon was fouled and swished two free throws and it was back to a four-point game. After exchanging 3s, the teams started swapping free-attempts. Yarou went 1 for 2 - but Parker was perfect on his two free throws to make it 71-68 with 10.4 seconds left.
Wayns again trimmed the lead with a driving layup. But Dixon made 1 of 2 free throws to seal the win.
This has been a season to forget for the Widlcats. Barring an unlikely run to the Big East tournament title, the Wildcats could miss out on postseason play for the first time coach Jay Wright's 11 seasons. Villanova has made seven straight NCAA tournaments and a Final Four in 2009. Wright took the Wildcats to the NIT each his first three seasons.
With former Philadelphia Eagles running back Brian Westbrook and NBA guard Malik Allen (who both starred at Nova) watching courtside, along with Larry Brown, the Bearcats made the smart, experienced plays in the second half that was enough to put away the Wildcats.
Wayns, who moved into 48th on Villanova's career scoring list, converted a three-point play that brought the Wildcats within two and Markus Kennedy followed with a layup that tied the game 58-all.
The Wildcats went on a 3-minute scoring drought that was the opening the Bearcats needed to take the lead for good.