They lifted Bill Stein high in celebration, partly because John Thompson can't be lifted, but mostly because they won this Big East Conference tournament as a going-away present. Georgetown University's basketball players put the little assistant coach on their shoulders, and after he came down he said, "That defense is strrrrrong."

Strrrrrong to last longggg, as Ali said once, and Georgetown won today, 72-54, because that defense snatched the breath out of Villanova's bewildered and beleaguered fellows. As Providence made just five second-half baskets, as St. John's made five, Villanova made only six when it mattered most.

With a man-to-man defense that put Patrick Ewing under the basket instead of 18 feet away as he'd been in the first-half zone, Georgetown transformed Villanova from a good big-time team into a nervous breakdown looking for a couch. Villanova shot 60 percent the first half, 37 the second. Ed Pinckney was four for six, then only got one more shot.

"I cheated back in," Ewing said of his second-half work that included three of his tournament-record five blocked shots. "Pinckney was getting open low, and we had to stop him."

Thompson gathered his players for a postgame prayer of thanks. Done, he said this one was for Stein, who has been at Thompson's side and on the road recruiting for 10 years now. The assistant coach will become athletic director at St. Peter's College this summer.

Ewing smiled the most. He spotted the trophy given to Eric Floyd as the tournament's outstanding player. Happy mischief in his eyes, Ewing picked up Floyd's trophy and turned to Stein, saying, "I want you to have this. It's a pleasure for me."

This Georgetown team has offensive deficiencies. It was dead last in Big East free throw shooting, two from the bottom in field goals. Defensively, no one is better. Thompson has fashioned a defense making perfect use of marvelous athletes willing to pay the high cost of pain and discipline necessary to win big-time games. That defense is relentlessly scrambling full-court pressure with Ewing back there to frighten whatever few trespassers manage to slip through.

It's foolish to say Ewing's size is the least of it. He is 7 feet tall with arms that reach from here to there. Yet it is as foolish to say his size is the most of it, for Ewing brings agility, determination and zest to his work. Eric Smith, Freddie Brown, et al, made the Villanova folks skittery up front. Then Ewing stood as the invulnerable defender at the back.

It was 47-45 when that defensive alignment, water torture finally caving in all resistance, moved Georgetown to victory. Brown made a steal from behind a guy. Some suffering Villanovan next threw a pass out of bounds. Then somebody dropped an easy pass out of bounds. It was, suddenly, 60-47, when John Pinone of Villanova, a 6-8 center averaging 18 points a game, thought to put in a layup.

Wrong.

Stronggggg to last longggg, Patrick Ewing moved toward Pinone.

You should have seen it.

Pinone's layup kissed the glass on the way up. But as soon as it skipped up another two inches or so, Ewing, rising elegantly, tipped the ball away from the hoop too quickly to be noticed.

And that wasn't the good part.

The ball came down to Eric Smith, who moved it to Floyd at midcourt for a fast break.

At the basket, Floyd simply flipped the ball high, just laying it up in the air near the rim.

The reason became clear instantaneously, for here came Patrick Ewing flying in behind him for a mammoth stuff/dunk driven through the hoop from about three feet away.

Floyd: "I had seen Patrick at the free throw line at the other end. So I knew he'd be coming. We do it every day in practice."

Ewing: "We're supposed to let them know if we're coming. I yelled, 'Trailer, trailer.' "

Ewing's smile lit up the place. But barely 18 hours earlier, he had been a young man hurt by a hostile crowd. Ewing and his teammate, Brown, have the discomfiting habit of scowling at opponents, talking in their faces, whining to officials. Three times in a matter of a minute Friday night, Ewing, Brown and Floyd nearly caused fist fights with St. John's players.

Most of the 15,000 spectators turned on Georgetown. Not only were the Hoyas the league's best team, they are seen as the villains of the Big East. Thompson's habit of secreting his team away from the tournament site, practicing in solitary, has produced a mystique of suspicion. The local papers here made a big deal out of Ewing not talking to the press, although the 18-year-old freshman has answered questions since January.

Thompson bitterly alluded to such trash today, introducing Floyd and Eric Smith to assembled reporters. "Come on, you can talk," he said to his senior players, "y'all not Patrick."

As Ewing left the floor with his fourth foul Friday night, the crowd booed him mightily.

He didn't know what to make of it. A whistling-past-the-graveyard swagger came into his step as he moved slowly down the court toward the bench. He looked around the seats high above him, looking for the sources of the sound that hurt.

Then he lowered his eyes and raised his right arm overhead, waving his forefinger high in the No. 1 sign. He thought, he said later, it would make the people quiet.

It didn't, of course, and Patrick Ewing learned something then.

"I wasn't thinking about that," he said after hearing the cheers of celebration today.

Someone said, "Nobody ever loves the big guy."

"They always boo the best team," Ewing said, smiling.