Michigan Coach Bill Frieder, looking like a man who has just fallen from a 10th story window and landed safely on a mattress, explained his team's 59-55 escape tonight from Fairleigh Dickinson in an NCAA tournament first-round game in this manner:

"I just hope my kids realize how close they came to going home," he said. "I've seen too many of these damn things not to know it could have happened to us."

It almost happened tonight in the Dayton Arena. Spreading the floor from the start, playing patiently and intelligently, the Knights, who got into the tournament as ECAC Metro champions and number among their losses defeats to such teams as St. Francis of New York and Utica, almost knocked out the top seed in the Southeast Regional.

On Sunday, Michigan, ranked third nationally, will play Villanova, a 51-49 winner over Dayton tonight.

Harold Jensen moved out of a delay offense and made an easy layup with 71 seconds left for the Wildcats (20-10). With the score tied at 49, Villanova went into a delay game, but when Jensen spotted an opening in the lane, he drove in virtually uncontested for the game-winning basket.

Ed Pinckney paced Villanova with 20 points and Damon Goodwin led Dayton (19-10) with 16.

Thanks to its patient offense and Michigan's 31 percent shooting in the first half, Fairleigh Dickinson (21-10) led, 26-20, at halftime and built the margin to 32-22 with 13:22 left. At that point, Michigan center Roy Tarpley had four fouls and the impossible look very possible.

"I thought we had them," Fairleigh Dickinson forward Larry Hampton said. "They looked tired and confused. I thought they might give up. But we made some turnovers and let them get back."

But Michigan's full-court press created problems.

Trailing, 37-30, with 8:47 left, the Wolverines went on a 12-2 run, mostly from back court turnovers. They took the lead for good at 43-41 on two foul shots by Leslie Rockymore with 4:26 left. From there, led by Tarpley (15 points, 13 rebounds), they built the lead to 55-43 with 1:47 to go.

Even then, Fairleigh Dickinson didn't quit, rallying to 57-55 on Jaime Latney's basket with 10 seconds left. But the Wolverines got the ball inbounds and Tarpley made two foul shots with two seconds left.