When Georgetown and George Washington tip off at 8 o'clock tonight in McDonough Arena, it will be billed as a basketball game. According to the heroes of the past four games of this wild, wacky, unpredictable revalry, it is college basketball's version of "West Side Story."

Some games are remembered by a phrase, such as The Esherick Shot, that midcourt heave in 1978 by unheralded Georgetown guard Craig Esherick that sent the game into overtime and eventual Georgetown victory.

"For some people," said Esherick, now a graduate assistant while attending Georgetown Law School, "that's all they know me for.

"They're all crazy games. That's the fun about them, I guess, I don't see how things are going to be any different."

In the last four years, the four regular-season games have been decided by a total of six points, with two overtimes.

Haveland Harper, a junior high school math teacher in Philadelphia, said of the 1976 game: "It was probably the most thrilling moment I ever had at GW, probably my most thrilling thing in sports. . . I still miss playing and I'm trying to forget playing and you call me out of the blue and bring this back. I remember turning the ball over a couple of times. I had to redeem myself."

Redeem himself the 6-foot-5 forward did in the 81-79 overtime victory for Gw over which the debate still rages. Did Harper's tip-in precede the buzzer?

George Washington had the basketball under its basket with four seconds to play. Harper got the inbounds pass near the basket, with two men guarding him. He passed the ball out to Pat Tallent, whose 33 points had kept foul-plagued GW in this game. Tallent missed the jumper. Harper missed the first tip, then jumped over 7-foot-2 teammate Kelvin Hall and put the ball in.

"How did it happen in four seconds?" Harper said. "Don't ask me."

And how did Harper react?

"I went completely off," he said. "I screamed as loud as I could. We were at half-court. (Assistant) Coach (Tom) Schneider came over and picked me up. How he could pick me up I don't know. He was more excited than I was."

To GW, it seems as if beating Georgetown is tantamount to winning the NCAA championship. In the past six regular-season games, GW holds a 4-2 edge over its more talented opponent, four points being the widest margin. But Georgetown won both playoff games when NCAA berths were on the line.

"You play them hard, but you can't place GW ahead of the entire season," said Steve Martin, the hero of last season's 73-71 Georgetown win, in which Martin scored the key points down the stretch despite playing with what he would learn was a separated shooting shoulder.

Martin is an accountant with a major Washington firm, but he still recalls the rivalry: "We usually see each other during the summer and that carries over into oganized college ball. No matter who has what record, it's always a good game."

John Thompson, the Georgetown coach, is the last person to promote the rivalry. "You go 50 miles past Washington and nobody knows or cares about the GW-Georgetown or the Georgetown-AU games," said the coach who yearns to win a national championship.

Yet, said John Holloran, the GW guard whose two free throws gave him 31 points and produced the 74-73 victory in 1977, the essence of GW-Georgetown is more than the schools being so close to each other, at opposite ends of the Whitehurst Freeway.

"That GW-Georgetown game was the best college basketball game I'd completed in as far as strategy and excitement. They all went down to the wire and they were great to play in and great to watch." said Holloran, who now works for a law firm and is a part-time assistant coach at GW.

"There was always great emotion," Holloran continued. "That's why I'm looking forward to this one. They'll always be the same. Playing against Maryland was like playing against the top dogs. Playing against Georgetown was like superior play and superior strategy. Everybody played well against each other."

Georgetown (19-5) will be seeking its ninth straight victory tonight since losing to St. John's last month. . . GW (14-9) was playing its best basketball of the season two weeks ago, but the Colonials have lost four straight, slumping badly after close losses to two superior teams, Villanova and Virginia Tech. . .