It was March 4, 1976, Capital Centre. The ACC Tournament. The scoreboard told the story: Duke 74, Maryland 72. Nine seconds left and Duke's Mark Crow, an 83 percent foul shooter at the line.

I could sit still no longer. I got out of my chair and walked around it in circles. "Calm down, John. You guys have it," my counterpart from the student newspaper at the University of North Carolina said.

"No way," I answered, "I've seen this show before."

Crow missed the free throw and the Terps tied the game and won it on a buzzer tip-in by Lawrence Boston in overtime. It was Duke's 11th loss of the season by three points or fewer.

"This is like losing a loved one," Duke Coach Bill Foster said. "I don't think there's any way I could live through another season like this."

I felt the same way.

As John Harrell stood on the free-throw line Saturday my mind flashed back to Capitol Centre. I started to say something about it to someone but my lips were so dry I couldn't talk.

But Harrell made the shots this time and Duke was in the national championship game.

"This whole thing is like a dream come true," Foster said seriously. "No one can understand how we feel unless they saw us the last three years."

I saw them during those three years. I also saw them the year before Foster arrived when I was a Duke freshman. During my first academic year there one basketball coach quit before the season started (Bucky Waters), another was hired and fired (Neill McGeachy) and the football and basketball teams finished their seasons with the worst records in school history. The Blue Devils also lost one game after leading by eight points with 17 seconds to play.

That's what it was like my four years at Duke. There were a few happy memories but they were easily outnumbered by games like the one against Maryland.

What made it even more difficult was being sports editor of the student nespaper, The Chronicle. In that position, I got to know Foster and his assistants, Lou Goetz, Bob Wenzel and Ray Jones.

That part was good. The bad part was knowing and liking them and knowing the players, too. There's no way you can like a group of people, travel with them constantly and not become emotionally involved when they play.

Not being one for suppressing my emotions, I spent a lot of time kicking chairs during games. Foster is fond of calling me "the unbiased reporter."

Saturday as I looked around the cave-like Checkerdome and saw friends from school and fellow alumni, I understood what Foster meant about understanding how we (Duke) feel.

Winning is special after you've heard comments like this: "Come back to Chapel Hill real soon, John, it's always a pleasure to have you . . . Especially when you bring your Duke teams with you." Or see headlines like: "Tournament starts today; Only Duke not given a chance."

That headline appeared in The Washington Post a year ago on the day the ACC Tournament started. I grimaced when I read it, but I couldn't argue. It was accurate.

But now it's all changed When I talk about what a great player Jim Spanarkel is, people listen. In the old days they laughed. When I start a sentence with "Foster tells me," people react like they do in the E. F. Hutton commercials. Suddenly, everybody wants to hear what my friend Bill Foster has to say.

Perhaps the best way to contrast Duke and Kentucky was brought up by my friend Warren Levinson, who finds himself in the position tonight of being a Duke graduate working for a Lexington, Ky., radio station.

"I was sitting with a friend from Kentucky on Saturday and with four minutes left we're up by 10 and I'm sweating like crazy," Levinson said. "He thought I was nuts. At Kentucky when you're up by 10 with four to play you light the cigars.At Duke that's when you start sweating."

Win or loss tonight all Duke people have reason to celebrate. Foster has done one of the more remarkable coaching jobs seen anywhere (an unbiased statement if I ever heard one) turning a 10-16 seventh-place team into a national finalist - in four years.

But what makes me happiest is a conversation I overheard at dinner Saturday night coming from a table of Kentucky people. One of the men had met the Duke players on Friday.

"I was enthralled," he said. They are a bunch of bright, super nice boys. They really are good people over there." Right.