Eamonn Coghlan, Renaldo Nehemiah and Don Paige kept a sellout crowd of 18,301 cheering from start to finish of the 72nd Millrose Games tonight. All three came within minuscule ticks of world records, although in the fight with the unyielding clock, all three fell short.

Coghlan, the Irishman who graduated from Villanova, captured the mile in 3:55.0, one-tenth of a second from the indoor record Dick Buerkle set last year at College Park, Md. The scoreboard incorrectly flashed "world indoor record" before the official time was announced.

Nehemiah, the Maryland sophomore who is the world's best hurdler, continued his remarkable succession of indoor victories with a runaway 60-yard triumph in 6.90 seconds. A false start prompted just enough caution to prevent Nehemiah from lowering the world mark of 6.89 he set on this same Madison Square Garden track Jan. 20. It was only today that Nehemiah learned a rereading of that photo had added one-hundredth to the previously announced 6.88.

Franklin Jacobs won the high jump at 7 feet 6 inches but failed in three tries at an indoor mark of 7-9. Dan Ripley set a meet record of 18-1 1/2 in the pole vault, but was unable to beat the world best in three attempts at 18-6.

Paige, Villanova junior making his first major indoor challenge against Villanova graduate Mark Belger, won the 800-1,000 range since 1977. Until ever on an 11-laps-to-a-mile track, but two-tenths off Mark Winzenried's 1972 record set on a 220-yard oval at Louisville.

Paige has not lost an indoor race in the 800-1,000 range since 1976. Until tonight, Belger hadn't lost one since 1976. They had not met before except for a meet in Italy when Belger was ill, because Belger had suggested they stay apart and keep winning, Belger nominally at 880 and Paige at 1,000. Tonight Belger moved up to challenge and admitted, "I lost lots of sleep this week worrying about the race."

Belger tried to break contact as he led through a 1:50.5 half mile, but the stronger Paige overhauled him at the gun and fought off Belger's stretch challenge.

"The race went the way I wanted it to," Paige said. "I planned to go with the field and with one (lap) to go I wanted to be in the lead. I can do things like that now, because I'm stronger. I have more maturity, I'm training harder and I don't like to lose.

"I didn't know how good condition Mark was in. He has more problems than we (collegians) do. He's been traveling since December and that takes a lot out of you."

Villanova Coach Jumbo Elliott, while accepting congratulations, said, "I can't cheer too much. Mark was in my hotel room over an hour today. It was like I had two sons in the same race."

It was Paige's third straight Millrose success and he erased the meet record, the Garden mark and Mike Boit's 11-lap record of 2:05.5 set in San Diego two years ago.

The 1,000, eagerly awaited all winter, lived up to its billing, but it was almost overshadowed by the mile. Paul Cummings set a blistering pace, covering the three-quarters in 2:58.5, then Coghland stormed past and raced unchallenged to the wire.

As Coghlan stepped over to salute Elliott, the scoreboard indicated a world indoor record, but it was based on the unofficial time of 3:54.7 recorded nearby. No one will ever know the basis for the huge letters that flashed the ultimate insult on the board: "Eamonn Coughlin." Such is the burden of track stars in non-Olympic years.

Olympic 1,500-meter champion John Walker was among the beaten milers as Coghlan posted his 21st victory in his last 22 major indoor meets and his eighth triumph in a row. Buerkle finished sixth, two places behind Walker.

Kenya's Wilson Waigwa, previously unbeaten this year, would up a distant second in 3:56.3.

Nehemiah admitted that his false start had forced him to exercise just enough caution to snap his string of five straight world-record performances in major indoor meets, although he was a clear leader at the first hurdle.

"I anticipated a jump and if I went out after another world record, it would have been that time," Nehemiah said of the early jump. But right now I'm just trying to stay sharp. I'm not greedy."

Todd Scully set a world indoor mark of 5:55.8 in the mile walk, erasing the record of 5:59.0 that Remaudo DeNicola set only four days ago in Milan.

June Griffith of Adelphi established an automatically timed world indoor mark of 54.04 for the women's 440. Deby LaPlante set a meet record of 7.59 in the 60-yard hurdles. Francie Larrieu set a meet mark of 4:15.0 for 1,500 meters as she fought off 880-yard winner Jan Merrill.

The 500-yard event, run in three sections, produced a batch of upsets. Willie Smith surprised Herman Frazier in 57.0 in the final section, but Mike Solomon prevailed on an earlier 56.9. In the other segment, Howard's Mike Archie whipped Bison grad Richard Massey and veteran Maurice Peoples in 57.6.