Their heads, as always, rose a little above the crowd. The game was over, and what a pretty game it was. Now the Virginia and Georgetown players passed by each other, shaking hands. Patrick Ewing, the sophomore, sought out the senior, Ralph Sampson, and you could see their heads, in the clouds, as they said nice-game-see-you-later. Paint a picture of it. Put the picture where you can see it every morning.

Not to shovel too much sugar into this, but whatever college athletics ought to be, Virginia and Georgetown brought it to Capital Centre the other night. These are honorable universities with athletic programs that have risen honorably from nothing to something wonderful. As for the individual excellence that is the foundation of any university, Ralph Sampson and Patrick Ewing are sky-hooking paragons as gifted as any hundred violinists sawing away at Beethoven's stuff.

Though the pros have bent Sampson's ear with talk of multimillion dollar deals, they have not bent his idea that college is a nice place to be. He simply likes it. This is his fourth season, and it is interesting that Ewing now says he plans to get his degree before getting his money from the pros. He likes it at Georgetown.

The atmosphere at Capital Centre was electric, as if this game were for the world championship instead of being a nonconference game 11 days into December. Only in March, so long from now, would Virginia-Georgetown be terminally significant. Yet the game deserved national attention because of a confluence of circumstances that, as with a solar eclipse, occurs only rarely.

It was the nation's No. 1-ranked team against No. 3.

It was Sampson, twice the college player of the year, against Ewing, the first challenger to his eminence.

Because the teams are in different conferences, such a meeting needed to be specially arranged. Television put up $500,000 to arrange it. And because Ewing has said he'll stay in school, the next Sampson-Ewing confrontation might not happen until 1985 in the pros.

Unless, that is, we get lucky enough to have Virginia and Georgetown meet again this season in the NCAA tournament.

"I hope we can have it again in the final four," Sampson said afterward. In Virginia's 68-63 victory, Sampson outscored Ewing, 23-16, and outrebounded him, 16-8. Sampson also blocked seven shots, and Ewing blocked five. These numbers, while interesting, mean little if you're looking for a judgment on which big guy is the better.

"All it did," said John Thompson, the Georgetown coach, "was reconfirm what I believe about Patrick. These two kids are on such a high level that it doesn't mean anything what the difference between them is."

"It proves something," said Red Auerbach, "but it proves nothing. They are team-oriented guys, and the coaches decided to double- and triple-team them. If either guy was interested in statistics, he'd take every shot. But they passed the ball. They were dedicated to win the game for their teams."

At tipoff, Sampson walked around, slapping hands in anticipation. Ewing stood still, unblinking, his concentration on the ball.

The contrast of attitudes was total, and for the first half Ewing seemed the deferential partner in the Sampson-Ewing pairing. They never spoke to each other, and Ewing seemed to avoid looking at Sampson.

"I didn't sense any of that, absolutely not," said Auerbach, who tried to sign Sampson for the Celtics two seasons ago. "They both had fire in their eyes. And besides what they did individually, they showed great leadership. Sampson, near the end, took Ken Edelin aside before some big free throws and he must have said, 'Hey, it's just a ball game, stand up there and stick it,' because Edelin went up there strong and made them both."

Bob Ferry liked everything. "There was that one special moment," the Bullets' general manager said, "when we got to see both of their awesome talents."

That came late. Virginia led, 57-51, with 5:40 to play. Then Ewing, with his inexperienced guards finally getting him the ball in midlane, came from knee high with a windmill dunk breathtaking in its directness. Sampson: "I just had to decide whether to block it or get out of the way." He got out of the way.

At his end, Sampson took the ball inside. Ewing blocked the shot so quickly the ball never left Sampson's hand. Sampson went up again. Another block by Ewing, this time the ball falling to the floor. And Sampson, as strong as he is tall, scuffled until he again went up for a layup.

This time Ewing fouled him, and Sampson, his eyes afire, slapped hands defiantly/triumphantly with a teammate. Sampson was so hyper he walked to the wrong end of the floor. Georgetown benchwarmers screamed at him, and Sampson beckoned with his index finger that if they wanted to make something of it, just come on. They didn't.

Sampson's free throws gave Virginia a 59-53 lead. At 59-all, he gave Craig Robinson a little pep talk for two of the 10 straight free throws that accounted for all the winners' points in the last six minutes.

"I now fully realize how strong Ewing is," Ferry said. "He held his post position against Sampson. And I liked Ewing's maturity. Last year he might get flustered, out of control in anger. Like after Sampson stuffed one on him, Ewing came right back with a purpose in mind -- and he dunked one against Sampson."

Twice, Sampson pushed Ewing down. Twice, Ewing simply got up and played. No temper. Just played ball. Once, Sampson slipped down at Ewing's feet during play. Ewing reached down, as if to give Sampson a hand up. There was never an ugly moment in a high-tension game.

It was, as John Thompson would say, "pure, hard sport-playin'. " It was very nice. Let's do it again some time.