If they did it for the cheers, they would have quit long ago. No point, after all, to a rain dance in a desert.

If dedication were its own reward, if intensity and hard work were all it took, the glory would be theirs: the packed gyms, the media attention and all that with which sports rewards its heroes. But not its heroines.

Fifteen girls basketball teams competed recently in the first Independent Schools Athletic Association tournament, a three-day, round-robin invitational that featured no star players or dominant teams, just fast-paced, rugged contests that were wonderful to watch.

Except that few did.

In a cold, half-empty gym at Sidwell Friends, Georgetown Visitation and Holy Child played a second-round game for a chance at the championship as a small band of friends and parents cheered support.

That the girls were playing such a big game before such a little gathering was not important; that they had worked all winter to get here was what mattered.

For two short hours, they left behind the struggles of the regular season and let loose on the court in a playoff game worthy of any tournament.

This one had it all, including Holy Child rallying from a 27-point second-half deficit before wilting late in the fourth quarter to heavily favored Georgetown Visitation, 56-47.

It had Holy Child point guard Robin Marino driving, passing, diving and harassing in a gutsy second-half performance to keep her team in contention.

And it had Visitation, after almost unraveling, hanging on at the finish, thanks to extraordinary outside shooting and clutch rebounding.

Above all, it had a bunch of girls stirring the emotions, bringing spirit to a game they learned on neighborhood blacktops and refined in countless gyms.

"Why do we do it?" said Michele Matan, a senior at Georgetown Visitation. "This is the game we've grown up with. We play it because it's the game we know.

"We don't get a lot of support, but that's okay because after a while, we're used to it, anyway. We play for ourselves and for the team. And we play hard, because we know sometimes we're the only ones watching."

"They do it for the same reason anybody does anything -- to excel, to learn and to grow," said Helen Porter, the coach at Immaculata. "It's too bad they don't get a lot of publicity, but that's always the way it's been.

"They get what they can out of it, and they show a lot of effort and enthusiasm."

In the end, they do it for love, a sweat-soaked contagious sort that breeds hope and expands dreams, and for those rare moments: the quick runs down court, the crisp passes, the last-second baskets that lead to victory and bury the memories of long nights in silent, dimly lit gyms.

When a season of frenzy finally ended for Holy Child last Friday, Marino sat on a middle row of bleachers, toweling off her wavy brown hair and looking at the empty court. And then she cried.

A teammate came over to offer a hug; "Robin, you played a great game."

Marino lifted her head.

"Thanks," she said. "We almost did it, didn't we?"