With 52 seconds left in the game, Greg Beckwith, Richmond's diminutive point guard, stopped dead in his tracks, close to midcourt. He had just been fouled by Virginia's Tom Calloway and, with his team leading, 54-42, Beckwith cradled the ball against his chest, raised his other arm in the air and smiled broadly to the roaring crowd at Richmond Coliseum.

The Spiders' 58-46 victory over the Cavaliers last week, their first in eight games against Virginia going back to 1967, finally had been secured.

"We knew we were outsiders, and they had a lot of talent," said Beckwith, who is 5 feet 9, 150 pounds. "It was a confidence-builder."

The Spiders traditionally have been outsiders on the national basketball scene, with small teams and talent that normally doesn't run beyond the starting five.

But Richmond went to the NCAA playoffs in 1984, taking Coach Dick Tarrant's patient offensive philosophy to the second round before losing to Indiana, 75-67.

This season, the Spiders, 8-0 after their victory over Virginia last week in the championship of the Richmond Times-Dispatch tournament, are off to their best start in more than 50 years, even better than the previous four, when they made postseason appearances three times, twice in the NIT.

They have been impressive with a not-so-easy schedule, beating Stanford, Virginia Commonwealth twice, Wake Forest by 23 points and Providence by 16. Now, the Spiders are seeking a school-record third consecutive 20-win season.

Richmond has not made the top 20 yet, but tonight's game against seventh-ranked Georgia Tech in Atlanta presents a good opportunity. Richmond also plays No. 19 Virginia Tech at the end of January.

"I think they're opportunists," said Tarrant, sitting in the front row after practice at the Robins Center, the Spiders' home court that is nestled among trees at the end of a long, winding road through part of the campus.

"I said, 'We built the schedule for you and that took a lot of planning, but we have a great opportunity here. We have an opportunity to jump off and beat Providence, a Big East team that has a new coach, new system.' Then we caught Wake Forest on a little of a down year. We had the opportunity and we took advantage of it.

"We've got a nice six (players). We don't have much power or depth. Beyond (six), we don't have much quality at all. We have to be very lucky throughout the season we don't get sickness or injuries, because if either one of those two things hit us, we're in deep trouble."

Lack of quality depth is something coaches have to deal with in the Colonial Athletic Conference. But Richmond consistently has been successful, and the reasons are obvious. One is Tarrant, who was coached by Vince Lombardi in high school. When Tarrant became Richmond's coach in 1981, his first college head-coaching position, he decided that the best way to win against bigger and stronger teams was to slow the pace and and play intelligently.

Another reason is 6-7 senior forward John Newman, not well known among fans nationally but perhaps one of the best players in the country. He played on the Nike-NIT all-star team that toured the Far East last summer, and many would not be surprised if he is chosen as high as the second round in the NBA draft.

The previous two years he averaged almost 21 points, and this season leads the team in scoring (22.9), rebounding (7.4), field goal percentage (53.8) and free throw percentage (82). He always has been able to make baskets from 20 feet and stun audiences with his jumping ability, but this season he is a more complete player, showing improvement as a ball handler and on the offensive backboards.

In the past, Newman "tried to do things he's not terribly capable of doing," said Tarrant. "Get the ball in the open coring with some of his work. break. So I finally convinced him through watching films that he has to work within his limitations and assets."

The third reason for Richmond's quick start is a supporting cast consisting of senior Beckwith, sophomore center Steve Kratzer, senior forward John Davis, sophomore guard Rodney Rice and sophomore forward Peter Woolfolk, the sixth man. Woolfolk (10.0 points) and Rice (9.9), who was the Washington-area all-Met player of the year his senior year at St. John's, rank behind Newman in scoring.

Woolfolk gives the team a lift off the bench. Davis, who is 6-5 and 215 pounds, is a strong rebounder, and Kratzer has made some key baskets, especially against Virginia. Rice is adjusting, having transferred this year from Boston College, but has helped in scoring. He had 20 points against Providence.

Some observers say Beckwith, a candidate for the Naismith Award, given to the top college player under 6 feet, is primarily responsible for the Spiders' success. He has 62 assists and only 19 turnovers, a noteworthy statistic for someone who handles the ball most of the game.

"Beckwith controls the tempo of the game," said Kratzer. "He's very important. If we had to open the game up, he can. If we need to slow it down, he can. He doesn't shoot the ball much (3.6 scoring average), but he gets it to those who can."

Said Tarrant: "We have a most valuable player, and that's Greg Beckwith. We just can't play without him; he's too invaluable. And John Newman is our outstanding player because he's flamboyant, slam-dunks and makes tip-ins over the guy inside of him. But as far as true value to the team, Beckwith would get my vote."

Tarrant, a 1951 graduate of Fordham and the Spiders' winningest coach (62.8 percent), didn't come to Richmond hoping to one day become head coach. He was happy as an assistant. But Lou Goetz stepped down in 1981, and Tarrant helped Richmond to the NIT his first year.

"I changed the philosophy, the basic style of play, from an up tempo to a very moderate tempo in order to utilize the talent at hand," said Tarrant. "They were running up and down with 20 turnovers a game, and he (Goetz) was adamant with staying with that because he thought it was entertaining to the fans. One of his jobs, he felt, was to fill the seats. I just thought winning would fill all these seats."

He's getting close. The university's enrollment is only 2,600, and the team has been drawing an average of 6,500 fans to its 10,000-seat arena.