Jack Kvancz knew his players were trying. He knew they were diving for loose balls, scrapping for every rebound. He also knew George Mason was leading his Catholic Univiersity team, 44-16, at the half.

So what do you say in the locker room when you know this is the last game your school will play in Division I and your entire starting front line is sitting on the bench in street clothes, out with various injuries?

Kvancz took a deep breath. "Not like this," he said softly. "Can't go out like this."

He took off his jacket and walked into the small room between the lockers and the showers where his players sat on the floor. Against one wall sat a blackboard where, 90 minutes earlier, Kvancz had told his players how they could win.

But now, the hope was gone and Kvancz's stomach was twisted in a knot. He looked at the faces of his 11 players, nine of them walk-ons. His voice was barely a whisper. "I told you before the game that I was proud of you for hanging in, for keeping together," he said. "I meant it. But when you're bad, I gotta tell you you're bad."

His voice was rising. "Twenty-three times we came prepared. We maybe didn't win, but we worked, we didn't let people walk all over us. Please, please, go out with an effort."

Now he was shouting, screaming. "All I'm asking from you is 20 more minutes, give me everything you have left for 20 minutes. Then we can drink champagne, drink beer, party, laugh, cry, whatever you want, you can do.

"But for God's sake this isn't a school yard game. This is us. Together, all of us. We're all going to remember this night, let's want to remember it. When that buzzer goes off anything you want, it's yours. But for 20 more minutes, I own your butts."

His voice dropped back to a whisper. "Please make me proud of you."

They formed a huddle around Kvancz, hands stretching, reaching to touch his. "It's amazing how he's kept us together," senior Joe Colletta, one of two remaining scholarship players had said before the game. "No one on this team will quit, because we don't want to quit on Coach."

And so for those last 20 minutes the Cardinals refused to give George Mason anything. There was irony in this meeting. The Patriots, under first-year Coach Joe Harrington, are thinking big, trying to build a future. f

Kvancz arrived at Catholic six years ago with the same notion. A new gym had been promised. He recruited hard for four years, brought in players who turned a Division II team in 1975 into a 13-13 Division I team three years ago.

Then, a year ago, Catholic pulled the plug. The new gym, it was decided, was not a priority. In the spring, the administration voted to drop from Division I to Division III in athletics to save money. Kvancz immediately began looking for schools to which his younger players could transfer.

Left were seniors Colletta, Billy Dankos and Danny Murray. Murray went down in early January with a broken ankle, Dankos hurt a knee shortly after that. The third starter up front, Jay Haigler, broke a foot.

Kvancz was left with Colletta, now a 6-foot-2 forward, and sophomore Johnny Rogers, the ninth man a year ago before the purge, and walk-ons. Geoff Mack, second baseman on the baseball team, was the point guard.

Kvancz had dreaded/dreamed of this night all season. As the injuries mounted, he first looked forward to, then thirsted for the end. Kvancz would do it right, though.

First, there was the pregame meal at a Fairfax restaurant near the Mason campus. Anything the players wanted. Kvancz sat at a table with his wife surveying the scene.

"It's almost hard to believe, that this is the end," he said. "If you had told me I could survive a season like this, I'd have told you that you were crazy. But these kids have given me everything I could ask, and more. Once, I only believed in winning. Now I've started to believe in the effort to win can be just as important as winning."

As the players filed out of the restaurant Colletta said quietly, "The Last Supper."

The end was like a Chinese water torture. First, the brutal first half. Then, the second, in some ways more painful because the Catholic kids never quit. The bench was always alive, the bodies continued to hit the floor. The second half, even with Harrington leaving his starters in and pressing, was even.

Kvancz played everyone. At the end, as if trying to drag out the torture, the officials called every touch foul. "Please," Kvanca pleaded, "let them play, let this be over."

But it wasn't to be that way. The game took 2 hours and 15 minutes to finish. Finally, it ended, a 98-66 George Mason victory. But the Cardinals had scored 50 points the last half.

In the locker room, Kvancz called his team together one more time, shook hands with each one and said simply, "Thank you." Then he broke open a bottle of champagne and lit a cigar. A nightmare 4-20 season was over. o

"I just hope," he said, "these kids had fun. It's hard to have fun when you lose and lose and lose, but we had good times this year. This is a class group."