When the news broke Wednesday night, they went berserk at American University -- final exams be damned. Fifth-ranked Georgetown had fallen, 62-61.

Computer sheets came sailing out of dormitory room windows. Cars stopping for red lights near the American campus had their hoods pounded. Students jammed Massachusetts Avenue, screaming and thrusting index fingers into the night air. They stopped traffic entirely before packing Clendenen Gym for an impromptu rally.

Even the next morning, at Bender Library, the hysteria had not faded.

Peter Travis, a junior, was poring over his Biopsychology 57.313 notes, cramming definitions -- "extra pyramidal," "Nauta-Gygax Stain," "presynaptic inhibition." Miraculously, his attention wandered from such gripping material, and he reflected on his school's upset victory.

"It was nice," said Travis. "I listened to a little bit of it on the radio when I took a break from studying this stuff. People went crazy. It was the most excitement I've seen in my three years here."

Ricky Cortellessa, a junior finance major, reluctantly pulled away from his marketing notes.

"It was sick," said Cortallessa. "There were fireworks everywhere. Everyone was crowded in front of the gym, going nuts. People were cheering all over campus."

In fact, the only person around who didn't seem very excited by the upset was the American coach himself, Ed Tapscott.

"We did not just win the national championship game," said Tapscott. "Sure it's nice, but guess what? We beat Georgetown Wednesday night. That, and 25 cents, will buy you a cup of coffee in these inflationary times.

"We have to remember we beat Georgetown, yes, but it's only one game in 27. There's no sense in going crazy over this."

Tapscott was as confident before the game as he was circumspect after. He seemed pleased, but not unduly so, that his team was able to open a 15-point lead at halftime and then withstand a tremendous pressing defense by Georgetown.

"I really believed we could win that game. I told the team that on the bus trip on the way back from the Iona game," Tapscott said. "Georgetown is young; they play freshmen and sophomores while we have a more experienced team. I thought we could confuse them."

American, led by Mark Nickens (17 points) and Steve Nesmith (14), used every defense it had ever learned: zone presses, man-to-man presses, a trapping 1-3-1, two variations of the 3-2, a man-to-man.

The Eagles also refused to concede the backboards to Patrick Ewing. They challenged him. Not often, but often enough.

"As great a player as Patrick is, you have to respect him, but not fear him," said Tapscott.

At halftime, while the 9,902 in Capital Centre were trying to figure out just what had happened to the Hoyas, Tapscott warned his players:

"I told them, 'Don't think they're going to lay down for you. They didn't lay down for Virginia and they won't lay down for you.' I knew it would be torrid out there."

And it was. With American leading, 49-32, midway through the second half, Georgetown went on an 18-2 tear that cut the lead to 51-50.

"That was the best pressure defense I've ever seen," said Tapscott. "David Wingate and Michael Jackson and the rest of them could go all-out because they knew the big guy would be back there to erase any mistakes."

Guard Gordon Austin helped put the game away. He drove the lane right at Ewing, and forced the Georgetown center to foul out of the game with 3:10 left. He also made both free throws for a six-point lead.

The victory comes one month before the NCAA will vote on a restructuring of Division I, which could result in American being forced from the division. "This should demonstrate that Division I issues should be settled on the court, not in the finances," said Tapscott.

While the victory in Landover brought rapture on Massachusetts Avenue, up on the hill at Georgetown a few students in front of Gelman Library seemed to take the loss calmly.

"It's been a very strenuous finals week," said Tracy Mathieu. "Having such erudite ballplayers, it's been very tough for them."

Helen Gleason, a sophomore in the School of Foreign Service, said, "I was in the library studying (Wednesday) night. I was wearing my Walkman listening to Kool and the Gang, but I could still hear the screams when we lost.

"I suppose American is entitled to whatever little piece of pride they can get."

Gleason, who is studying for a French exam, certainly knows her noblesse oblige. She knows it cold.