When the University of North Carolina won its only national basketball championship 20 years ago, what is now its sister institution was known as Charlotte College. It was a two-year night school and its basketball team was appropriately nicknamed the Owls.

As recently as 1965, when the school gained four-year status, the standard response of a student at the University of North Carolina Charlotte, was, "I'm coming here for two years and then transfer to Chapel Hill." As recently as 1970, UNCC was not even a member of the National Collegiate Athletic Association.

Al McGuire, the candid coach at Marquette, said recently: "I could schedule 26 games against teams whose names sould like UNCC's. We would win them all. But I don't know if we could beat UNCC."

McGuire will get a chance to find out Saturday, when UNCC plays his Warriors in the NCAA semifinals at the Omni in Atlanta. And, this will be UNCC's opportunity for identity and equal status - at least for a day - with those Tar Heels from Chapel Hill, who play Nevada-Las Vegas in the other game.

Not that there is a hate affair between UNCC - the school officially has no hyphen in its name - and the Chapel Hill Campus. UNCC spends its time getting established, instead of promulgating verbal warfare along the lines of the Carolina-N.C. State feud. Instead UNCC has spent in excess of $30 million and expanded its student body from 1,600 more than 8,000 in little more than a decade.

UNCC had its first shot in the national sports spotlight a year ago, with a Cinderella team that took New York by storm before losing to Kentucky in the NIT finals. But that was nothing compared to what happened when the 49ers - the team's nickname since the early 1960s - beat sixth-ranked Syracuse Thursday in the Mideast Regional at Lexington, Ky.

On Thursday, the students produced a raucous victory rally. Some students stopped an empty flatbed truck on U.S. Rte. 49 in front of the campus, started dancing on the flatbed and then were joined by the driver. They also bathed the campus in rolls of toilet paper.

Yesterday, following Saturday's win, a crowd of 5,000 gathered at the airport to great the team, stood on the terminal roof, lined surrounding streets and even made it diffidult for the team bus to get back to campus.

Cedric (Cornbread) Maxwell, the star of the 1976 NIT tournament and the 49ers' success last weekend, compares this unheralded UNCC team to the Texas Western team that took Kentucky by surprise a decade ago and won the NCAA final at College Park. Texas Western is now known as Texas-Elpaso.

But UNCC's roots are more humble than Texas Western's.

It all started in 1946, in two basement rooms of the old Central High School in Charlotte, after the North Carolina legislature established an extension center of Chapel Hill for returning veterans.

The extension center was just about to be legislated out of existenc a few years later, having served its purpose, the lawmakers thought. But some local leaders Petitioned the state legislature to keep it open: the result was the two-year night school, Charlotte College.

The campus moved from the basement of the high school to a vacated elementary school.

In 1966, a year after becoming a four-year school, UNCC became part of the state's university system, which included N.C. State and North Carolina at Chapel Hill. N.C. State fans, to put the dig in at the Tar Heels, call their rival UNC-CH. Tar Heels refer to their school as The University of North Carolina. Sixteen universities make up the system; they are all sister schools and autonomous. Each has its own chancellor, who reports to a systemwide president.

From 1965 to 1970, UNCC was one of the 10 fatest growing universities in the nation. But even then, as former student Dave Taylor, now a university official, recalled:

"The kids came here with the idea of staying two years and then transferring to Chapel Hill. They wore Chapel Hill, Duke and State tee shirts. You don't see much of that any more. They wear UNCC shirts and stick their chests out."

UNCC wants to be known nationally by its initials, just like the University of California at Los Angeles. "I'm not trying to make an analogy with UCLA," Taylor said. "Four letters work for them; there's no reason why they can't work for us."