Close to the ultimate in sports happened yesterday at American University and most of the world missed it.

It wasn't nationally televised. It wasn't played in a 100,000-seat stadium.

With most of 5,300 spectators standing on the sidelines and grassy banks surrounding the field, the American University soccer team advanced to the NCAA championship game next Saturday in Seattle by defeating soccer power Hartwick College, 1-0. It was a game of unrelenting intensity and suspense that wrought absolute joy among the AU players, an unprecedented campus celebration and utter anguish for the barely beaten Hartwick team.

Even the fetish in this country for high-scoring games dissolved among witnesses to this classic meeting between upstart AU, which operates with only modest athletic-scholarship aid, and little Hartwick of Oneonta, N.Y., which has reached the NCAA soccer semifinal two years in a row and seven times since 1970. In the dying minutes, with AU clinging to the lead it took 77 minutes to achieve, Hartwick pressuring the Eagles in front of their goal, and the Eagles desperately batting back every ball, a woman implored AU to "kick it, kick it. Oh, God, it's so easy to say."

And when time ran out, AU's two-time all-America, Michael Brady, who assisted on the winning goal by Fernando Iturbe, ran directly to the AU student body with arms outstretched, as the crowd surged forward to meet him. AU players hugged one another, and rolled on the ground in jubilation. "Glory Days" burst forth on a loud speaker, and torn paper began falling from tall dormitory windows.

On the far side of the field, defeat came as hard as athletes can know it. One player sat on the grass, a woman kneeling next to him with her arm on his shoulder and a small girl standing next to them. Their faces told the outcome. On the team bench, players sat for long minutes with heads in hands. Red eyes, red noses. There was no consolation, no big losers' paycheck that eases a professional's defeat. It was okay to cry.

"Hartwick and its soccer has been my standard," said AU Coach Pete Mehlert. "I'm glad it was such a game."

The NCAA title game will be played in the Kingdome, but yesterday's game took place in the purest of soccer settings, on merely a field. Fans entered through openings in snow fences, and those in the front rows were almost close enough to touch the players. AU radio announcers stood on chairs. The clock on the little scoreboard could tick off only the last 20 minutes of each 45-minute half. Play rolled on, free of commercial timeouts, halted only by bloody noses, bruised legs and ankles and, in the case of Hartwick goalie Mike Harrison, a blow to the head that left him in a motionless heap. Always, the victim got up.

Neither team gave ground, but AU forced the action, playing "like we usually do," said Hartwick Coach Jim Lennox. But Hartwick put two players on AU's catalyst, Brady, and contained all advances.

But shortly, Brady, from in front of the goal, headed the ball to Iturbe, who in turn headed the ball past Harrison and into the net. In a wild celebration, Brady ran among the student spectators as AU starters and reserves embraced.

"What time are you leaving for the Kingdome?" asked a spectator.

Said another, "I'm not saying anything 'til the game is over."

She knew Hartwick would be relentless over the last 12-plus minutes. One ball sailed just to the left of the Eagles' goal. AU went into a shell it couldn't get out of until the ball rolled free and the last seconds elapsed and all the laughter and shouting began, and Hartwick's disappointment welled up.

"It was a hard loss," said a woman, a Hartwick rooter, talking at a pay phone, long distance. "Time ran out."

Some time later, Brady and Iturbe, the last to finish dressing, were still talking over the game, and especially its outcome. "Seattle? I've never been so far," said Iturbe, a Spaniard who called Mehlert two seasons ago in hopes of attending AU.

Brady, who has long curly hair, threw back his head and laughed, as friends and teammates hugged him. "It hasn't sunk in," he said.

Outside, the cheering still sounded across the campus.