Saturday's eight-hour basketball journey began with George Washington pulling off his head and ended with Lefty Driesell blowing his top.

In between Pearl Bailey distracted foul shooters. Edward Bennett Williams razzed refs, and the American Eagle got beaten up an pinned at midcourt.

What could be better than an ancient college basketball rivaldy between excellent, even teams.

Well, how about three of the in 2-4-8 p.m. sequence?

Last Saturday's tripleheader hoopla hit Washington as the area's five best teams played in tandem.At least one fan, with some dangerous driving through Georgetown's back streets, saw all but two baskets.

Despite the fact that four of the six teams involved had spent time in the top 20 this season, and that their combined winning percentage was .687, the final scores - American 82, George Washington 78; Georgetown 77, Holy Cross 61: Virginia 79; Maryland 70 - were only half the pleasure.

From Smith Center to McDonough Gym to Cole Field House, surprises were constant for those whose eyes wandered from the dribbing ball.

For pure delighted shock, there was the introduction to the crowd of George Washington's stately, almost 7-foot mascot with his powdered wig and dollar-bill face.

When ol' GW stepped to midcourt and ripped off his head, who should turn out to be inside but a petite coed with her hair in corn rows and a smile worthy of a perfect punch line.

If she provided the double-take, her counterpart - the American Eagle got doubly taken.

Not two weeks ago this same blithe Eagle had taken umbrage at one of the St. Joseph's mascot's gestures and dropped his parts in retaliation.

As of Saturday, the Eagle's suspension from college had been lifted. He was back at his dubios stand.

When two GW students ran on court to heckle AU's cheerleaders with some dancing-Harry voodoo, what would any good Eagle do but flap to the rescur and give one of the intruders a hearty hip flip.

Unfortunately, this has been a bad season for Eagles. The other inteloper proved to be a wrestler. No wonder Eagles are endangered.

Several violent seconds later, the Eagle - contorted like a chicken wing - had been pinned and was held beak-to-the-floor until rent-a-cops arrived to rescue him.

The fellows on the floor in short pants had some surprises, too; especially when it was foul-shooting time.

Who should Holy Cross players see sitting smack under their basket but GU's best-known undergraduate, Pearl Bailey, waving her arms frantically to help make them miss. Good heavens, darlin', Holy Cross missed 12 points worth of free throws in just one half of Bailey hecking.

For uplift, there was the standing ovation at McDonough for five graduating GU players, including the "Felix . . . Felix" chant for Felix Yeoman, who seldom plays.

When the Hoya saw Coach John Thompson being interviewed on NBC, they howled "Thomp-son . . . Thomp-son," until the big man looked as sleepish as a littler boy.

But the marathon day had its bumers, too.

Maryland captain Lawrence Boston took the prize.

"Ernie Graham knocked that, Virginia guy (Lee Raker) out cold," said Boston with approval. "Whatever Ernie did to him, he did it good, but he shouldn't have been ejected. Wasn't no blood on the floor.

Meanwhile, Driesell, after allegedly cursing at this defeated team, stormed out of Cole without speaking to anyone, scattering his own fans in the parking lot as he gunned his big courtesy Coachmobile through the crowd.

Driesell hung a right, tires squealing, and ran smack into the back of an enormous traffic jam.

"Ain't this game supposed to be for fun?" yelled one angry woman who had been forced to dodge Driesell. Then she laughed at the departing BCK-225 license.

"That's all right, Lefty," she called after him. "You're just mad 'cause you know your whole team'll be at a party before you get home."

If the Terrapins continued a long history of borish sportsmanship, there was more than enough of the good kind to go around elsewhere.

Though GW had just lost for the 10th galling time at AU since 1969, Colonial Coach Tallent said, "Jimmy Lynam (of AU) has to be one of the best coaches in America . . . his team shouldn't be able to beat mine, especially in my gym. But they did. Give them all the credit."

The big-game atmosphere at Smith, McDonough and Cole is radically different.

The new Smith Center is clean, airy, dispassionate. The skylights and architecture are almost distracting.

The Colonials' fans - patient but noncommittal - aren't worth much to the team in a pinch. Sure, they cheer. But let GW get a bad break and they groan, clam up and almost anticipate defeat. That ain't the way it is in Carolina's Blue Heaven.

Nevertheless, GW fans aren't front-runners. They never boo, and do give support even in the last seconds of a defeat.

McDonough - old, cramped, beautiless, but intense - is the antithesis of Smith Center.

GU fans have the fever, no question. And they have developed a surly streak. Harsh signs deck the walls, refs' ears turn red, even GU subs get ovations. It all helps. McDonough isn't a pit . . . yet. But GU was 15-0 this season in its little hostile Hoyaville.

Cole Field House generates more excitement and home-court advantage before the opening tip than both Smith and McDonough do in a whole game. Cole is 100 percent big time; nothing else in town is remotely close.

Mary's monster facility/and the doings inside it are huge, loud, exciting, sexy, sometimes uncouth. Sportsmanship is a word that gets a laugh.

Maryland basketball fans are the prototypical spoiled front-runners. With 30 seconds left in the Virginia game and Maryland behind by only six points, almost 10,000 people had left.

When the public address announcer asked the fans for "one final big cheer for the Terps who have given us so many thrills this year", the building was as quiet as if the announcer had asked for a moment of silence.

Nevertheless in midgame, the Terp fans are fierce. After all, a good definition of optimism might be 15,000 people urging the '77-'78 Terps to play "Defense."

Even if hundreds stand up at Smith, thousands at McDonough and 10,000 at Cole, one common denominator links them: the freedom from inhibition provided by a mask.

Watch the GU bulldog, the suffering AU Eagle, or the Maryland flag corps strut their stuff. A natural sense of comedy, of drama, of wringing all the excitement from a delicious moment connects them all. Perhaps for the only times in their lives they are truly performers.

And in the crowd that same release of emotion surges to the surface without the help of any stimulant, any loss of awareness.

Edward Bennett Williams grabs his temples in mock dismay. Pearl Bailey waves those arms and screams.

"Why, you're the same bum who robbed us at Georgetown!" bellows a GW fan at a ref.

It is only an illusion that the players are the lone actors, that the real fun is only on the court.