By all estimates, it was as sweet a basketball victory as Maryland has ever had. When they needed to be, Wednesday night in Cole Field House, the Terrapins were poised, hitting clutch free throws and jump shots and generally acting as though they belonged among the most elite teams in country as . . .

Ah, what was that again? You say you were interested in the men . Oh. Well, the guys were not nearly as sharp, talented of course but acting like turtles - mentally and physically - at just the wrong moments against a team that thinks and runs at a wonderfully swift pace.

Indeed, the irony was thick Wednesday night. A Maryland team won an ever so important game. You could even say it became the UCLA of the East without stretching a point, because the losers were in fact the seventh-rated Bruins. But it was the Terrapin women who performed so grandly.

This was in the preliminary, and a near-capacity crowd experienced that rare treat of an appetizer being as filling as the main course.

"In terms of recognition in other parts of the country, this was a big win," coach Chris Weller said of the 92-88 victory that surely will enable her 4-0 Terrapins to improve their 10th-place ranking in the national polls. "But the prestige is not nearly as important as the education value. It would be nice for a rematch (in the national finals)."

Those familiar with recent recruiting history were not surprised by Duke's 10-point success over the Maryland men, whose dropoff in overall excellence has been just dramatic enough to make them vulnerable to every team in the Atlantic Coast Conference.

Quietly, the former 98-pound weaklings of the league, especially Duke and Virginia, have developed muscle, with names such as Gene Banks, Kenny Dennard, Jeff Lamp and a now-ineligible guard, Bob Bender, who ought to make Bill Foster's team even more devilish by the time of the ACC tournament the first weekend in March.

"One game does not a season make," Foster said over a vanilla milkshake early yesterday. "But this one sure feels good. Yes, it might be my best at Duke, because we haven't done much in the league, and even less before hostile crowds."

Until Foster and his staff lured such as 6-foot-5 Jim Spanarkel, whose basketball 10 certainly must be 200, 6-11 Mike Gminske and freshmen forwards Banks and Dennard, Duke was scrappy but highly beatable.

In fact, some insisted enough data was availiable to form what might be known in college hoops as Duke's law: if there is a way to lose a game, we'll find it. The Blue Devils' road record since 1972 in the ACC - until their victory Wednesday - was 1-31.

Against Maryland, Duke made all the right moves at all tje right times - and as Terrapin coach Lefty Driesell said: "We didn't play smart when were behind. Poor defense. Poor rebounding. Maybe we had the wrong people in there. I don't know."

Maybe Duke has a better team. Maybe Virginia does, also. And Carolina. And possibly even North Carolina State and Clemson will be tough to beat in Cole Field House. Maybe Terrapin faithful had better think in terms of a 500 record in the ACC.

Everybody in the league can play now, and every small advantage is important. Down three points after a nice rally that had the capacity crowd beside itself in the ACC opener. Maryland missed three free throws - and the players and fans went flat.

The Foster and Duke gave Driesell and the Terrapins a clinic, perhaps creating an athletic verb in the process. Maryland was Spanarkeled. To be Spanarkeled is to be outshot, outhustled and outbought by a pigeon-toed textbook. To be Spanarkeled is not necessarily to be embarrassed.

But Maryland's excuses that its two most Spanarkel-like players, Greg Mauring and Albert King are freshmen are not quite valid. Duke starts thrice 18-year-odds, the third being sophomore [WORD ILLEGIBLE] . When Reader rounds into form, Duke might start two freshmen, two sophomores and its wise aid fussil, junior Spanarkel.

Foster's three recent recruiting years have been splendid - and characterized by standout players decideing unusually early to attend Duke and refusing to allow other athletic salesmen to change their minds.

"One reason is that we did not talke any 'suspects' early on," said Foster, who became Duke coach in 74 after building solid programs at Rutgers and Utah. "There always seemed to be an opening that a Gminske or a Banks could see.

"But we're beyond that now - and it'll be tougher to recruit. But as far as recruiting is concerned, we have turned a corner." And so, perhaps, has Virginia. And Norm Shoem always manages to attract as much talent as leaves State before its eligibility expires.

Carolina has two exquisite players, Phil Ford and Mike O'Koren, and a gifted freshman named Al Wood who might not start but probably will play more minutes than any Tar Heel at small forward by tournment time. And Clemson always will be tough under its Bill Foster. Even Wake Forest has started a promising tradition.

What was it Al McGuire said in his valedictory last year? Oh, yes: "Coaching in the ACC is the first sign of insanity."