If they did it for the cheers, then they would have quit long ago; no point, after all, to a rain dance in the desert.

If dedication were its own reward, if intensity and a brilliant record were all it took, then the glory would be theirs--the roaring crowds, the bands and cheerleaders, the pumped-up spectacle with which the sports world rewards its heroes.

But not its heroines.

At least not yet.

This year, the Maryland women's basketball team is ranked eighth in the nation. Its record is 19-2. The team has six players who score regularly in double figures.

It is a tightly knit team that doesn't depend on the pyrotechnics of a couple of stars and that plays a fast-breaking game that is wonderful to watch. Except, of course, that not that many do.

Not when compared to the numbers that turn out for Lefty's gang, even in a so-so season; that is to say, this season.

In the end they do it for love, a sweat-stained, aching sort that tears ligaments and stretches confidence, and for the exquisite moments--a thunderous run downcourt, a pass, a pivot, a heart-stopping basket, a sense of perfection.

"The first thing we have to realize is that this is the plateau," says 21-year-old forward/guard Debbie Lytle. "There's no NBA for us, there's no four or five zeroes at the end of our paychecks. But if you can put your heart into it, that ought to be enough. I'd love to have the crowds and all the rest of it, but you learn to live with it. We're winners even without the crowds."

The 14 members of the women's team are all on athletic scholarships and the life they lead revolves around cavernous Cole Field House, court and baskets, locker room and coach's office, and the rhythm of the season, green in October, seasoned in March. They practice five times a week. Three times at night, after the men's team is finished, twice in the mornings.

Practice is 2 1/2 hours long, sometimes longer, and that's not counting the time it takes to get ankles taped, or the hours spent watching the fuzzy black-and-white videotapes of last night's game.

For some of them, practice is almost all the playing time they get, and so they try hard to prove themselves, to impress the coach.

On bad days, they live for the water breaks, in between the endless drills.

On good days, they move to a kind of poetry.

"Everyone has their bad times, but in the end you grow up a lot," says freshman Bonnie Baker. "I used to pout when I missed a basket or made some mistake, but Miss Weller (Coach Chris Weller) threatened to make the whole team run line drills if I did it again. So I stopped."

Baker comes from the tiny town of Roseville, Pa.--"It's got three stop signs, one store and two churches"--and when Maryland made it to the final four, she almost didn't make it to Maryland, so frightened was she of how good they were. "Miss Weller scared me to death, I couldn't talk when I got here." Now, she says, it's hard to get her to stop, but still, it isn't easy.

"You have to adjust to not playing a lot. I thought I looked really good in training camp, but now I don't see myself improving. But I don't let things get to me now the way I used to."

This is it for them, the end of a road that began when they were children, playing with brothers on playground blacktops, playing on high school teams with college scouts in the stands.

Up to now, there was always something else to aim for, but now, at times, says Bo Pearman, a junior and a starter, "It does get hard, it's easier for the guys to work hard.

"It's hard to get motivated sometimes. In high school, once I got started, I had something to strive for.

"But then you get to college and there's no more than that. We work to be the best that we can be. But the older you get, you begin to see that you only have a few more games left. And then it's over."

Last year, the team made it to the semifinals of the first NCAA women's championship, and something happened there. "I saw a turnaround," says Weller. "They decided to be as positive as they could be." She adds ruefully, "I think the biggest problem we have now is that they're so nice. You mistake a cooperative attitude for an intense attitude.

"It's getting to the point where there is an interest in women's basketball in its own right," says Weller. She mentions the small signs and symbols--now the women's schedule is posted next to the men's in the student union, now there are season tickets and a boosters club, the Rebounders.

The NCAA women's championship game is televised. Still, much of the time it is the way it was when Weller played for Maryland 17 years ago, without the princely attention awarded Lefty's young pashas. She doesn't think the women mind. "I think it's the women's inexperience in having these things. They're so grateful just to be playing on a team."

Well . . .

"It's little things," says Lytle. "The men are given everything. They live in apartments, not in dorms; they get bigger per diems, they even get their laundry done. And they have a training table. And when I hear how they abuse it--like throwing food on the wall--why, if I had a training table, I'd eat very constructively."

"What I hate about guys' basketball is that all you have to be is tall," says Monica Gannon, a 6-foot freshman with short black curly hair and a gangling charm, a woman's grace still trying to emerge from an adolescent awkwardness.

"We work a lot harder, skillwise, on the drills, how to cover a pick, the fundamentals. All they do is scrimmage."

Occasionally, some members of the men's team will come to their games and cheer them on. One day, remembers Pearman, one of them asked her a question. What's it like, he wanted to know, to go to the final four? What does it take to get there? So she talked to him about self-pride, and about the way the team had worked for it and "it was nice for a change," she remembers, "them coming to us asking a question like that."

It was two days before the Notre Dame game, when they would be playing a team one of the assistant coaches described as "a lot of big white girls looking to shoot." At practice, they played one-on-one and two-on-two, and ran line drills in the defensive position, scuttling crablike up and down the length of the court till the sweat poured down their faces. Still their hearts didn't seem to be in it. They knew it and so did their coach, as she tried to get them to work on rebounding.

"You're all in the same nest and you all want the same worm," Weller yelled by way of explaining the proper attitude toward rebounding.

"Chirp, chirp, chirp," came the chorus from under the net.

"These are the basics, people. You don't win with fancy stuff," shouted Weller, but they weren't listening really, and at the next day's practice the anger began to tighten her voice, until finally she called them all over to the side of the court and began the sermon that had simmered all week.

"I think you think you all are God's gift to the universe because you were ranked third," she said. "Well, I'll tell you something. We were ranked first, we were ranked second, and we thought we were so good, and then we finished sixth. Right now, the way you're playing, you don't even belong in the top 20!"

The players stood in a circle, heads low, listening. Afterward, there was a team meeting to try to find the reasons for their lack of motivation, so much of any victory being bound up in the desire for it. Like all athletes, they approach the questions of incentive, morale and their own mental toughness like high priestesses before the altar, trying to divine the right mystical combination that will fend off failure and fear. Complaints about playing time are aired, and the need not to depend on Weller for incentive, and then they decide to go to a movie together to improve team spirit.

But the team fell from its No. 3 nationwide ranking to No. 8 a few weeks later after losing to North Carolina State and North Carolina. "We were flat," says Weller of the first loss.

In addition, the game came at a time when the campus newspaper was devoting a lot of attention to a contretemps between Weller and a former player. The player, Lydia McAliley, initially charged that Weller had assaulted her, then said instead that Weller had verbally humiliated her, and finally dropped the matter. Weller denied the charge, but worried how the subsequent publicity might affect recruiting efforts.

Now, after trouncing seventh-ranked Old Dominion last week, a much-needed victory, Weller and the team are buoyant. "They think of themselves as being like the Redskins," Weller says. "They say I'm always telling them things like Joe Gibbs tells his team. That they're a good team, not a dominant team, that has to work hard and play together to win."

Jasmina Perazic sits in the stands and looks at the empty court, smiling her cool and dreamy smile, the one that makes her look like she's in a world of her own on the court. She is a 22-year-old Yugoslavian who moves with a liquid magic. When she scored her 1,000th point, the game was stopped so she could receive a bouquet of red and white roses. There is a music to her and to her playing that seems to have captivated the whole team. "She's so good she should be illegal," says sophomore guard Julie Silverberg.

Perazic is 6-1, and her long black curls frame a perpetually amused expression. In the summers she plays for the Yugoslavian national team, and was a starter on the Yugoslavian team that won the bronze medal in the Moscow Olympics. In her own country, she is something of a celebrity. If she wanted to, she could earn her living after graduation playing for one of the many club teams. "But here I'm nobody," she says, "I can't even get a job. It's funny. Here most people don't even know we exist." She describes playing against a man recently, "a conceited rugby player," and beating him and how she told him he should come to the Maryland games sometime. "He said, 'I don't watch girls play.' "

Lytle is a street-wise city kid from Philadelphia, filled with a brash passion for the game, a versatile ability and an enthusiasm that fuels the team. Her best friend on the team is Marcia Richardson, North Carolina country girl, thin and spidery, who skitters down the court, looking like an electric current is running through her outstretched arms. Together they play a kind of counterpoint to each other, Richardson a bird on a wire ready to fly and Lytle sturdy, ardent, tempered in this, her senior year, but infused by the same toughness that helped her survive a childhood in the unsparing and narrow streets of the ghetto.

"I grew up in that kind of environment where it was the main means of entertainment," she said. "In North Philadelphia, there's a basketball court on every corner. I don't want to make it sound like basketball was my ticket out of there, that's an old story, but if you accept me, you have to accept my environment. I grew up in the ghetto, where you have to pay to play. Basketball helped me to be a lot stronger, to understand and to adjust to certain things."

Richardson learned her basketball playing day and night on country courts. She fashioned a good corner shot because, from that angle, the rim was silhouetted in the moonlight. Her mother supported her and her eight brothers and two sisters by working as a seamstress. "I was little Miss Tag-Along," she remembers. Her brothers would show her off to their friends and watch with delight their amazement when she would beat them. "Whenever I felt bad, I'd play basketball. It was my outlet," she remembers.

She was a star in high school. She liked the recognition, she didn't like the way some people reacted to it. "They called me tomboy, said I was cocky, unfeminine. I'd ask myself, 'Do you believe that?' and the answer was always no."

It remains a tricky question, the way in which women athletes are perceived, not so much in high school any more, but still in college. "I'm always defending myself," says Silverberg. "People say things like, 'You don't look like a basketball player.' They think you're not normal. You learn to shut it out, but I remember when I first came here, I couldn't believe it. I called up my mother and said, 'Mom, guess what? Everyone here thinks we're queers!' Now if I ever say anything about basketball, I always mention my boyfriend."