IT SHOULD GO without saying that the measure of a university's strength extends well beyond the ability of a certain few students to slam, jam, pass and block a basketball. No school could be more conscious of this than the city's young University of the District Columbia, where administration, faculty and students are moving enthusiastically to send out a message of progress--of an increasingly cohesive, productive and improving institution. Still, UDC's greatest ambassadors on the national scene continue to include the dazzling Firebirds of basketball, who even in heartbreaking defeat gain new respect for their school.

A year ago, everything clicked as the team brought home a national championship that fired up intense local and national interest. Again this season, an unusually talented and determined team ripped off a phenomenal 24 straight victories on its way back to Springfield, Mass., and another appearance in the NCAA Division II finals. But the story ended differently, in an outright, thumping upset loss to Wright State.

What UDC players still deliver, though, is a winning quality: a spirit, a school identity and a pride of special significance to the men and women of this mostly black student body who take UDC seriously in more ways than collegiate sports. And no one put their achievements or their loss in better perspective than their coach, Wil Jones, who consoled them with good cheer and a classy comment: "I told them, 'Hey, you won 90 for me. You made a lot of people feel the way you're feeling right now. You were champions and you still are.'"

UDC President Benjamin Alexander told them that they are "proving they can excel in the two "A's"--academics and athletics. They richly deserve any honors they receive." Said trustees' chairman Ronald H. Brown, "Don't forget that these are student-athletes with an emphasis on the 'student.'" On both counts--more power to them!