One day four years and 2,361 points ago, the basketball coaches at George Mason University sold Carlos Yates on nothing more than a dream.

"We were not selling tradition, or all-Americans, or a big stadium," Coach Joe Harrington said this week. "We didn't have any of that to sell. We just were trying to project where he could be in four years, what he could do for himself, and for us. We found out you can paint great images when you're selling a dream."

Many times, Harrington went on to say, reality never looks as good as you thought it would.

Then again, sometimes it does.

Tonight, Yates, the Washington area's greatest college scorer, will play his final game in Fairfax, in the George Mason gym that seats only 2,800, many of whom will be Yates' neighbors and friends who have watched him play there for his entire high school and college career.

There will be more games in the ECAC South tournament next week, and, he hopes, another one or two in the NCAA tournament or NIT, but there will be no more on the floor where he nurtured his jump shot, where he eventually scored more points than Rick Mount and Lew Alcindor, where he could smile at the students in the first few rows as they bowed toward him and chanted, "Car-los, Car-los."

"It'll be sad," he said. "I might cry."

Yates, 23, is equal parts inner confidence and instant offense, which explains why he chose George Mason, and why he has become a star -- the first star -- there. He admits there were moments, especially at Final Four time when he saw buddies such as Michael Jackson and Bill Martin all over his TV set, when he questioned his choice to go small-time. After all, the next time he plays on national television will be the first time.

But that doesn't seem to matter any more. Somewhere in the mound of points and records and awards that he will cart out of George Mason is the satisfaction that, in four years, everything has turned out just right.

"I look at it in one question," he said. "Did I really enjoy myself playing basketball here? The answer is yes. I got to do what I wanted to do. I said I was going to do well, and I did it."

Last weekend, he passed Georgetown's Eric Floyd as the area's all-time leading scorer and Virginia's Jeff Lamp as the state's Division I leading scorer. On Wednesday, he broke the school record for single-game scoring with 42 points, moved into the league lead with a 24.4 scoring average and became the 30th-best scorer in NCAA history.

He is finishing with a flourish. "I love playing the big events," he said. "That fire comes in me, and I can't stop."

Tonight, Rutgers' Phil Sellers, the 29th-leading scorer in NCAA history, stands 38 points away. Sellers, who ended his career in 1976, might not be safe.

Yates says he "closed his eyes and jumped" when, as an all-Met selection out of Flint Hill Prep (which plays its home games at George Mason) in 1981, he eschewed offers from Purdue and North Carolina State, among others, to go to an almost unknown basketball program 20 minutes from home.

"A lot of people didn't think they would hear from me again," he said.

Harrington, the school's first full-time coach, pegged Yates as Prospect No. 1.

"We needed one player to give us credibility right away," said an assistant coach, Rick Barnes. "We picked Carlos."

To ensure that Carlos would pick them, they pulled a little stunt on Yates' recruiting trip to Mason. They put a picture of Yates with "all-American" written on it and a George Mason jersey with his name on the back in the trophy case, then took Yates past it on his way out the door.

"He froze," Harrington said, laughing even now.

Life imitates art. Sometime next year, in the school's new arena, Yates' No. 32 jersey will be retired.

There are several reasons why Yates chose Mason, all as valid now as they were then. He wanted to stay close to his family's home in Reston, so his mother and stepfather could watch him play.

"I wanted them to be happy," he said. "I wanted them to watch me develop as a player and as a person."

He didn't want to sit on any benches. He wanted to play 35 minutes a game, and he does.

He also liked the challenge of doing something different, walking the least-traveled road.

"I know the school hasn't won anything yet, but when they get there, when they do well in the NCAAs some year, they will never forget me. The honors will never end for me," he said.

"When someone builds a house for you, you don't forget him, do you? Every time you go into the house, you think of him, that that person did a good job for you."

Yates is 6 feet 5, weighs 205 pounds and has the upper body of a linebacker, not a guard-forward. As a sophomore, when he was third in the NCAA in scoring with a 26.8 average, he led the nation in free-throw attempts, with 266 in 27 games.

He has never minded shooting in traffic; as a freshman, in his second college game, against Virginia and Ralph Sampson, he drove into the lane and had a shot blocked by Sampson.

What did he do? He came right back again and had another one blocked.

"It wasn't smart," Harrington said, "but it showed he was competitive."

In Wednesday's victory against Navy, when he scored 42, one of the 10 (out of 27) shots he missed was a strange one. As Yates fought for the ball in the key under the Patriots' basket, he fell. Lying on his back, looking up at the basket, the ball bounced into his hands. He did the only thing that came to mind.

He shot. On his back.

He missed.

"But it hit the rim, right?" he asked. "It was a good shot. I like to do unusual things sometimes. I like to excite people."

Once, in a victory against UNC-Wilmington last season, he shot three consecutive air balls from the foul line.

"It was a really bad night that night," he remembered sheepishly.

He still scored 20 points.

A few games earlier, Harrington suspended him for not working hard enough in practice. It was supposed to be a two-game suspension, but the other players went to Harrington and asked him to reinstate Yates for the second game, against East Carolina.

Yates returned with 12 minutes to play in the first half, scored 18 points in the game, and fouled out with five minutes left in a 17-point victory.

"A lot of times, people test you," he said. "I think I responded well to that."

The next test, postseason, will come in the NBA draft. He is expected to be chosen in the first two rounds. That he is coming from a school primarily known for one thing -- him -- won't hurt, he said.

"Look at those guys: Dr. J, Larry Bird, Maurice Cheeks, Calvin Murphy . . . They came from small schools.

"Once, my English teacher took me to one of those NBA-ABA exhibitions to see Dr. J when he was playing for the Virginia Squires. I shook his hand after the game. He was awesome, but nobody knew him then.

"That's a prime example. Nobody knew him, and it didn't mean anything. Nobody knows me, and it doesn't mean anything.

"I just know if I'm good enough, I'll get what I deserve."