A plane crashed here Wednesday afternoon, a few blocks from downtown during the evening rush hour.

No one was hurt. But the crash of the twin-engine plane, into a grove of trees "about 100 feet from 15th Avenue," according to the police report, delayed commuters heading home on Thanksgiving Eve. Local radio stations casually warned drivers to avoid the area.

It wasn't much different than a fender-bender on the Beltway. The two men in the single-engine plane walked away unhurt, the local newspaper got a nice picture of the mangled plane and life went on as normal.

This is Alaska, a state more than twice as large as Texas that has a total population of 479,000. The population figure represents a 19 percent increase since 1980, the greatest in the United States, but it still means there is an awful lot of empty space.

Small planes abound -- almost 30 percent of the adult populace is licensed to fly -- because trying to get anywhere by car is pretty pointless.

Anchorage is easily the largest city in the state; in fact, half the population lives here. It is surrounded by snow-capped mountains on one side, water on the other and has a McDonald's, a Burger King and one of the country's busiest commuter airports in the middle of downtown.

Into this strange and unfamiliar land Wednesday came seven college basketball teams for a tournament called the Great Alaska Shootout. They were drawn here by the chance to do something different, by the competition and, most importantly, by the chance to play three early season games that don't count against the NCAA's 28-game limit.

"Basketball players never get to go home for Thanksgiving, anyway," Kansas Coach Larry Brown said. "This way, at least we're together as a team. This is an adventure, anyway. How can you turn it down?"

Given a choice, Maryland Coach Lefty Driesell might have turned it down. Venturing into the far north clearly made Driesell nervous. "How cold is it up there?" asked Driesell, who does not like flying much anyway. Told it was about 25 degrees, Driesell said, "Above or below?"

Actually, the teams arrived during a heat wave. The temperature climbed to 35 degrees Wednesday and there was no snow on the ground. To the south, in Juneau, the state capital, winds blew at up to 90 miles per hour.

"Scary, isn't it?" Maryland's Adrian Branch said, "To think the bad weather is to the south."

Players and coaches alike arrived here with a sense of excitement and trepidation, mixed with disappointment at being so far from home for Thanskgiving.

"First thing I always do on Thanksgiving is sit up in bed and smell the aromas coming from my mom's kitchen," said Danny Manning of Kansas, one of the most heavily recruited players in the country last year. "Today, I woke up about 9 o'clock and all I saw outside was darkness."

The city can be both depressing and exhilarating. Thanksgiving morning, when one could turn on "The NFL Today" at 8, the sun came up a little before 11, revealing a thick fog that made it all but impossible to see out a window. By 1 p.m.. the fog had lifted and the day was clear, comfortably cold and gorgeous.

Gene Bartow, the coach of Alabama-Birmingham, loaded his team into several vans and headed down Seward Highway toward Portage Glacier for a sightseeing trip. About 30 miles out of town, Bartow realized it would be dark soon. He ordered his players out of the vans for about one minute of picture taking, then turned back for downtown, making it just before the sun set at about 4 o'clock.

No one can complain about the treatment here. This tournament is now in its seventh year and has come a long way in a short time. It was the brainchild of Bob Rachel, the first coach at the University of Alaska-Anchorage.

In 1978, Rachel, with the help of a number of coaching friends, convinced seven major teams to play a tournament in Anchorage. But by the time the tournament was held, Rachel was gone and tournament officials had a problem.

"We had seven basketball teams and no place to play," said Paul Kinsley, who is now the tournament chairman. "We finally got the gym at Elmendorf Air Force Base. It was old, cold and seated about 2,000, but it got us through that year."

North Carolina State beat Louisville in the first final. By the next year, the tournament had moved to Buckner Gym at Fort Richardson, an Army base. That building seated 3,700. In the meantime, Anchorage Mayor George M. Sullivan had convinced the city's residents to float a $30 million bond for a downtown arena.

That building -- Sullivan Arena -- opened in February 1983. It seats 8,000, is bright, warm and comfortable and is almost never full.

Last year's Shootout drew 22,000 fans for six sessions, an average of fewer than 4,000 per session. This year, sales of the $60 tournament ticket book were up to about 3,000, but only the final drew more than 5,000.

As one might expect, basketball is not a major sport here. Alaska-Anchorage is in the NCAA's Division II and plays its home games on campus, not in Sullivan, which is about five minutes away. The hockey team and women's basketball team play at Sullivan, however.

"The building is committed to the Fur Rendezvous every February," Kinsley explained. "The coaches want to play all their games in one building, so they play on campus because they can't move the Fur Rendezvous out. At least right now, the campus gym (which seats about 1,500) is big enough."

"I don't think the people of Alaska know what they're missing," said Ron Petro, who became athletic director at Alaska-Anchorage this fall. "The quality of the field gets better here every year. We've been lucky because coaches who have come up here have gone back and told other coaches that this isn't the middle of nowhere. The hotels are first class and, even though it's cold, it isn't that much colder than New York or New England in the winter."

The hotels are definitely first class when it comes to price. The downtown hotels charge an average of $120 a night, although the teams get a cut-rate deal. An english muffin goes for $2.50, soup for $4.75 and french toast for $6.25. Even Alaskan king crab costs $22.

"The other stuff I understand," Driesell said. "But why would something from Alaska be so expensive?"

For the most part, however, the coaches have been pleased with their reception. Their players were invited to local homes for Thanksgiving, the facilities are good and some of the sights are breathtaking.

No one comes here to get rich. Tournament officials set a goal each year, as Petro put it, "to start at zero and end at zero." Each school receives a $12,000 guarantee. That isn't enough to pay airfare in most cases. Maryland's expenses with a relatively small traveling party of 22 will be close to $30,000.

But still, everybody wants to come here. Next year's field is already nearly filled -- North Carolina, Purdue, Villanova, Nevada-Las Vegas, Missouri and Texas-San Antonio are committed, and tournament officials hope someday the building will be full for each session.

"People want to come here because of the extra games, but also because it's a once-in-a-lifetime experience," Petro said. "Let's face it, Alaska is a place most people just read about it in books."