Now it was 10 minutes after 10 on a Saturday night, and George Washington University's basketball team had lost to West Virginia, 74-71, The GW coach, Gerry Gimelstob, said, "As a coach, you couldn't ask any more out of kids. They laid it on the line tonight. I'm proud of them." He sighed. "But... but it would have been such a big win."

Even a sidelong glance at the bodies tells you West Virginia is the better team. Once in the first half last night, GW had a lineup with four men averaging a total of 1 1/2 baskets a game. GW's best player, Mike Brown, played three minutes the first half; four fellows fouled out; one ripped up his knee after seven minutes -- and still GW could have beaten the nation's 18th-ranked team, a team with an 18-game winning streak.

It would have been such a big win, the coach said, such a big win that some coaches might have done it differently.Maybe the thing to do, if you're in over your head, is to sit on the ball and hope to eke out one of those vainglorious 31-28 victories. If you're GW going against West Virginia, you're an 11-9 club with dreams. So if you're the dreaming coach, you might devise a keepaway offense designed to negate the big boys' obvious superiority.

The thought sneaked in through a tiny crack in Gimelstob's consciousness. St. Bonaventure beat Rutgers in such a fiddle-faddling way not long ago. As more weak-kneed coaches go to zone defenses to cover their failings as teachers, scores everywhere are lower. But 30-29 games are an embarrassment to purists, and barely had the offending thought taken form when Gimelstob cast it out. Get thee behind me, Satan.

"That's not the way basketball should be played," Gimelstob was saying at noon, eight hours before tipoff. You ought to know he used to be a gun-it-up New Jersey guard. Besides, beating somebody 30-29 is convicting evidence you have little faith in your fellows. It says you don't have a prayer of winning straight up, so you're going for tricks. This is demeaning in the short run, destructive in the long run.

And Gimelstob is in business for the long run. He's 30. He's ambitious. This is his first year at GW, his first head coaching job. He thinks he's on to something here. He loves the city. Some places, he says, the coach is the only star in town, but in D.C. everybody is a star. This city is alive with ambitious people working hard. He says George Washington is a class place, genuinely committed to making the difficult athletic-academic marriage work. Whatever Georgetown (to pick a name) has done, Gimelstob thinks GW can do.

Beating West Virginia in a straight-up basketball game would be a nice little step up for the rookie coach and a school that hasn't played in the NCAA Tournament for 21 years. Forget the 30-29 thought. The next best thing to winning straight up is losing straight up, because even in such a defeat GW would send a message.

The message seems clear. Give GW another couple first-rank players and get out of the way. In only 23 minutes last night, freshman center Mike Brown had 24 points and 10 rebounds. The teeny-tiny guards, Mike Brey and Dave Hobel, combined for 29 points while West Virginia's big-strong guards, Greg Jones and Tony Washam, had 30 -- a standoff that redounds to GW's eternal credit.

If GW owned a forward who can put away the 15-footer, it would have won last night. But its wingmen were one for 17.

"I can't ask for anything but 100 percent, and they gave me more than that," Gimelstob said.

Meanwhile, the West Virginia coach, Gale Catlett, looked at the game from another point of view. He said everyone is fired up to end his team's winning streak. He said such inspiration moves everyday kind of players to work above their ability. He said GW baskets were being scored by people he never heard of before.

What the West Virginia coach should have said, had he a touch of humility, is that he was outcoached and his team outplayed. He should have said West Virginia was lucky. Everything that Gerry Gimelstob was saying at noon, eight hours before tipoff, came to pass before 10 o'clock last night -- and West Virginia could do nothing about it.

"We have to handle the ball and we have to get good shot selection," Gimelstob had said. "They press all the time and they have great team quickness, so we have to be careful with the ball. We'll score off the fast break if we have it, and we'll move as quickly as we can because once a team sets up its defense against us, we're not as good."

No tricks for GW. No magic. Just solid basketball.Straight-up. The way Gimelstob learned it working for Bob Knight at Indiana. The way the Celtics did it for Red Auerbach, an old GW grad who lobbied to get Gimelstob the job here. Just solid basketball the way Gimelstob wants to do it for George Washington.

"Defensively," Gimelstob was saying at noon, "the No. 1 thing is to get back on defense because they really like to run. No. 2, stay out of foul trouble; we can't have Brown foul out again. No. 3, we have to do a good job rebounding to slow up their break. And, No. 4, we can't let those guards, probably the best in the East, get 40 points."

Check, check, check and check. It all worked.

Only the score didn't break GW's way.

It will someday.