COLUMBIA, S.C., OCT. 17 -- For nearly three years, Craig Fielder seemed to be winning the battle, never giving an inch in his struggle against cancer.

Fielder was the Virginia football team's inspiration, earning game balls after the Cavaliers' victories over Virginia Tech, Duke and VMI this season with his mere presence on the sideline.

But Fielder died at the team's hotel Friday night, about 17 hours before the Cavaliers were to take on South Carolina. He was 21.

Fielder's two brothers, Curt and Steve, were on the trip and immediately notified their parents in McLean, Va., after Fielder was pronounced dead at 7:22 p.m. Cavaliers Coach George Welsh informed the team at an 8:45 team meeting.

"Everyone was really upset," Cavaliers defensive tackle Elton Tolliver said after today's game. "We were hurt because we knew how hard he was fighting it and he never quit."

Few Virginia players or coaches, although visibly troubled, were willing to discuss the matter after the game. "It's just too soon," co-captain Sean Scott said.

"What everyone had to do was sit down sometime last night or this morning and realize why we came down here," quarterback Scott Secules said. "He was with us, where he wanted to be. He always gave us a lot of incentive and he would've wanted us to go out and play and try to win. That's something he deserved from us."

Fielder was diagnosed as having lymphoblastic lymphoma early in 1985, during his freshman year at Virginia. He missed all of that season, but lettered for the Cavaliers at defensive end last year. The cancer returned in February, and Fielder recently underwent two bone marrow transplants.

Funeral arrangements were incomplete tonight.