The Heart-Attack Hoyas are going through a hectic, nerve-wracking season, but Coach John Thompson and Georgetown fans are loving it.

Thanks to a "Hail Mary" 35-footer by reserve guard Craig Esherick that tied the game in regulation at the buzzer, Georgetown pulled out a 78-77 victory Wednesday night over George Washington. It was the third time in the last four games GU has escaped with a one-point win and the ninth triumph recorded by six or fewer points this season.

The victory also assured the Hoyas of their first 20-victory regular season since the basketball program began 72 years ago.

"It's been an amazing season. I've never been through one quite like this before," said Thompson, in his sixth season on the Hilltop. "And I'm not sure I want to go through another."

On the other hand, with a few more well-timed bombs and prayers, GU's 20-4 record could be 24-0. The Hoyas' four defeats were by a total of 16 points.

Esherick's shot could be worth at least $35,880.45 to the Hoyas athletic program. That's the minimum amount each of the 32 teams in the 1977 NCAA playoffs earned. Thompson and his players feel by winning the final three homes games (including the GW game). GU should earn an at-large bid regardless of what the Hoyas do in the ECAC playoffs.

"We're going into the ECAC with plans to win it, but I don't think a bid should depend on the outcome of that one game," Thompson said. "In all fairness. I don't think we should be left out."

Thompson is more concerned about his Saturday home game against Holy Cross, which will be regionally telecast on NBC at 4 p.m. and at Fordham Suday. GU then meets Virginia Commonwealth (21-3) in the first round of the ECAC tourney Wednesday night at GW's Smith Center.

"Holy Cross isn't about to come down here and give us anything. They are trying to get a bid, too," Thompson said. "We have to get geared up all over again."

If the Hoyas have anything going for them in their rush to join the nation's elite 32, it's confidence.

After losing twice in a row following a 13-game winning streak, GU tipped nationally ranked Detroit (83-82), Manhattan (81-80), St. Peter's (55-38) and GW.

Thompson considers the Manhattan and GW games the "two most impossible situations we've been in."

GU trailed Manhattan by 22 points with 12 1/2 minutes to play.

"They thought I was going to stomp all over them, but I hugged them instead," said Thompson, who at 6-10 would have not trouble doing either. "I said just get it back a basket at a back so fast, it scared me.

"Sometimes coaches get too much credit for the harmony on a team. I just have an exceptional group of kids who blend together perfectly," Thompson said.

"The character of this team would be the same if we hadn't won a game. These close victories have made believers of them. Regardless of the situation, they won't quit.

"Look at the GW game, losing by two and having the ball under your basket is one thing, but taking it in at the other end . . . ," Thompson said.

"Even with two seconds, I knew I had a few options and I didn't want to force anything," said forward Steve Martin, who was faced with the task of putting the ball in play.

"I saw Tommy (Scates) was covered underneath the basket and John (Duren) broke too deep, so I threw it to Craig. He hit it. A game like that gives you a great uplift."

Even Scates wasn't sure whether Esherick was shooting or attempting to pass to him.

"I looked up and saw it coming from a strange angle. I got in rebounding position just in case," the 6-11 Scates said.

Thompson appeared to be confused after the Esherick basket. He walked toward GW Coach Bob Tallent as if to shake hands, then suddenly turned toward the partisan crowd and raised both hands in a pleading gesture.

"What would you have done if I had walked toward you? You would have thought I was crazy, too," Thompson said. "At that point, with the crowd behind us, I didn't think we could lose. But that's behind us now and our season is far from over."