It was the basketball game everyone had expected, two national powers separated only by the D.C.-Maryland line and 15 miles, waging wonderfully wicked war for 40 memorable minutes tonight.

If W.C. Fields would pardon the expression, on the whole, both teams would rather have been playing in Washington tonight, where this game probably could have filed RFK Stadim and sent sonic booms of noise echoing all over the nation's capital.

It would be nice to report that the most significant game in the history of Washington-area college basketball was played in an arena full of howling hysterical fans from both participating schools.

Nice, but not accurate.

A half-hour before tonight's first game matching Iowa and Syracuse, seats still were available at the Spectrum box office, and scalpers felt fortunate to get face value for their tickets. Even the soft-pretzel salesmen -- five for a dollar, a Philly tradition -- were hurting.

"Some guy from Iowa comes up to me and says, 'What's a soft pretzel?'" one vendor moaned. "Is Iowa in America?"

By the time Maryland and Georgetown tipped off, there were some empty seats in the sections occupied earlier by provincial fans from Syracuse and Iowa. The Spectrum was hardly a snakepit tonight, for either game.

Still, there was plenty of pizazz in the places allotted to the Maryland and Georgetown contingents -- a total of 5,500 seats -- on opposite sides of the court, of course.

In the Georgetown section, Carroll Ditzell of Baltimore was in his seat four hours before his favorite team -- and player -- took the court. Ditzell's grandson is Jeff Bullis, a reserve forward for the Hoyas, and grandpa was putting the finishing touches on four signs he brought along just for the occasion.

"We threw 10 people in two cars and drove on up," Ditzell said, puffing out his chest to better model a blue T-shirt with "Heart Attack Hoyas No. 1" emblazoned on the front. "If we win -- I mean when we win -- we'll drive home tonight and do the same thing on Sunday.

"How do I know we're gonna win? Listen, we're gonna win by five because I found a nickel today, a lucky nickel. The date on it was '74, and that's how many points we'll score. I have no doubts."

Down in the Spectrum's Ovations restaurant, the squat man in kitchen whites and a tall chef's hat had no doubt either. Before and during the Iowa-Syracuse game, Eddie Howard was occupied slicing the roast beef on the buffet line.

But that wasn't going to last all night.Not for the man whose son, Mo Howard, was a standout guard for Maryland's basketball team in the mid-'70s. "I got my civvies in the kitchen, I'll be out there rooting for the Terps," Eddie Howard said. "Couldn't keep me away.

"No question Maryland's gonna win. All I'm worried about right now is getting outta here without slicing off a finger. I'm nervous, man, real nervous. Some folks are getting big pieces of meat tonight, especially if they're from Maryland, know what I mean?"

Outside the arena, Ken Roden, a D.C. policeman and 1975 Georgetown graduate, was in full regalia -- Hoya hat, warmup jacket, blue sneakers, blue T-shirt -- and carrying a huge poster of a bulldog with the inscription "Try Me" in huge block letters.

Roden rode a bus chartered by the Hoya Hoop club, a trip during which he admitted "we had a little fun, oh yeah. Nothing crazy, but we had a nice time.It only took 3 1/2 hours. I took the bus to Providence the last two weekends, this was like a ride across town compared to those trips. The bus to Dayton a couple years ago was tough too. It's all worth it especially when you win."

Over in the Maryland student section. David Simson, a senior from New York City, also was outrageously attired, in what he described as "my Samurai Terrapin outfit."

Samurai Terrapin was wearing your basic fire engine red kimono, with a wide-brimmed red fedora to match, not to mention white sweat pants over red undershorts -- "I can't show those here, I'd like to avoid jail tonight," he said -- and red and white sneakers.

There was Japanese lettering on both lapels and on the back of the kimono. "It means good luck on the front," Simson said, "and good health on the back. Maryland gets both. Georgetown gets none.

"I started wearing it at home about 10 games ago, and the only time we lost was in the ACC (tournament) to Duke," said Simson, who drove up from College Park with three other friends. "Everybody knows we get jobbed in the at one anyway, so the Terrapin Samurai streak is still alive as far as I'm concerned."

Maryland's entire season was awash in red and white shirts, pants, blazers, hats and one painted red female face -- the whole face. Georgetown's section appeared a bit more tweedy, with a blazer and button-down, Bass weejun look. "Draw your own conclusions," winked Georgetown athletic director Frank Rienzo.

Georgetown cheerleader Lisa Schafert wanted no part of a discussion over socialogical differences between followers of the two schools.

"I've read all that stereotyped stuff about the differnece between the preppies from the private Jesuit school and the crazies from the state university. That has nothing to do with this game.

"All I know is our kids have been psyched all week, and I'm sure their kids feel the same way. I was in a bar last night, and people were actually singing the fight song and cheering. The whole town's gone crazy.

"There's no bad feeling between the student bodies. It's just a game isn't it? We want to win, sure, and if we lose, we'll all be upset and sad. But nobody's going to jump off any bridges. Nobody I know, anyway."