The tone had been set long before tipoff, during warmups when the Georgetown managers strutted onto the court wearing tuxedoes. Nothing but class tonight, Andre Hawkins had said when Athletic Director Frank Rienzo asked why. That's how the NCAA championship game went.

There was enough spectacular to inspire awe, enough silliness when nerves were tightest to bring tears. Wonderful players played wonderfully. The men who carried the two best college teams in the land to this highest level, Eric Floyd and James Worthy, made the court a stage at times.

But we might as well head right to Fred Brown, for he was a symbol for both teams, whose final folly near midcourt capped the final several minutes of tension when winning North Carolina and losing Georgetown had the title in their hands and couldn't hold it.

Poor Brown had the last error, one that will haunt him and the Hoyas as long as they recall this special night, this 63-62 loss. Coach John Thompson told him and the other players to "hold your heads high" during the awards ceremony; that is how Brown faced reporters.

What he did was mistake Worthy for Eric Smith. With fewer than 10 seconds left and the score as it would end, Brown had the ball just past midcourt. Instead of being passive, daring the Hoyas to shoot from outside against a set defense, Carolina created chaos.

Worthy flew into a passing lane. Others flashed toward Brown and then slipped back, making him stop his dribble. Brown explained:

"Eric (Smith) had gone backdoor, and I thought he'd come back out for the (outlet) pass. I thought I saw him out of the corner of my eye. I threw it to the closest man. It turned out to be Worthy."

Should time have been called?

"Just play," assistant Bill Stein said. "Just play."

In a college career that ultimately may eclipse that of every forward who has gone before him, Worthy never will be more startled. When the ball hit him in the chest and he realized the moment of his dreams had been thrown to him, the 6-foot-9 junior's face was part amazement and part joy.

Instead of watching his Gastonia, N.C., buddy, Floyd let fly, maybe swish another shot from afar that would break his heart, Worthy had victory in his hands. He played keepaway until two seconds remained, then followed a team trend down the stretch by missing both foul shots and giving Floyd one final, 50-foot heave.

The crowd was as carried away by the game as by few others. Expecting neither team to get 50 points, to dawdle the entire night, those watching were thrilled at how long, how boldly and grandly both teams flew at one another. From outside, Floyd was exceptional. Worthy's moves and power are close to unique in college basketball.

Pat Ewing and Michael Jordan were freshmen, and men. Ewing was a bit out of control early, getting called for goaltending five times in the first half. That had an impact, however, as Carolina's sophomore center Sam Perkins rarely was a factor all night.

But the Tar Heels had two giants, the Hoyas one. And Worthy was worthy of every superlative.

Jordan scored the last two Carolina baskets. On one, he took his 6-5 body directly at Ewing's seven feet, lofted the ball, left-handed, over arms that had to be 12 feet in the air, to a point over the backboard square and into the basket.

As they left the court after all the ceremonies, Dean Smith and Thompson embraced and whispered in the manner of long and dear friends. Their competitive fire had popped out earlier, in the first half, when Smith started to yell at officials to count during Ewing's long free-throw routine, then stopped.

"Don't let him run the goddamned game," Thompson thundered.

Early omens were bad for Georgetown. Veteran Smith watchers never had seen the coach so calm at such a moment. Denied, three other times, the one prize that would assure his place at close to the very top of his profession, this was going to be the night Smith either would be saluted as a Tom Landry or taunted once more as a Bud Grant.

Smith actually mingled among reporters, appearing at times to seek out a few. He joked about his constant smoking, recalled a fond moment as an assistant to Frank McGuire, the last Carolina coach (in 1957) to win the NCAA title.

As Smith trotted to the dressing room for the last pregame meeting, some Georgetown fans had chanted, "Choke, Dean, choke."

Fifty feet closer to the dressing room, he was composed once again. He flashed an empty cigarette pack and the fresh one he was opening toward a desperate Duke fan nearby and said, "Fewer than the Duke game."

Hoya fans familiar with Smith might have gulped.

"Sitting on the bench," Smith said, "it seemed like just another game. But now, as you talk it back to me, it doesn't."

One play comes to mind, a bit of irony that ought to make Brown feel a bit more comfortable. He made four painful turnovers in the second half, but was not horrid all night.

With the game tied at 20, Carolina got a steal and a chance for a fast-break basket. All Buzz Peterson had to do was control the ball and flip a long pass to a teammate far ahead of everyone. Suddenly, Brown flicked the ball away from Peterson, drove into tall traffic and scored.

Another time, Floyd swatted the ball away from a Tar Heel to Brown, who returned it for a breakaway. Somehow, from close to the Heels' hoop, Ewing glided past everybody except little (6-8) Matt Doherty to the Hoya basket. Floyd lobbed a soft toss rim-high, and Ewing stuffed it.

When Hoyas, players, officials, fans, had time to consider all that had happened, after Thompson had taken Brown by the shoulders and talked with him for several seconds, there began a chant: "We are . . . Georgetown. We are . . . Georgetown!"

They'll be back.