On the night of Nov. 20, the crowd was so large at Marymount University's basketball home opener that people stood in the doorways and on the stage at the far side of the gymnasium. Attendance was only 450, but it was 150 more than the Arlington gym seats.

Why all the excitement? It was the first men's intercollegiate game at the 37-year-old school that didn't even accept male students until a year ago. With a team of 12 freshmen, the Saints won the inaugural game over Virginia Wesleyan, 84-67, and are currently 4-3.

"There were more people here than we could seat," Marymount Coach Webb Hatch said. "But next year we're going to open up bleachers on the other side so we could get 800 or 900 in here."

The Saints are an NCAA Division III independent and will play all 23 games against NCAA and NAIA teams. There are no games against community or junior colleges. So far, their winning ways have surprised everyone, including Hatch, who said before the season that he'd be happy with six to eight victories.

"I felt we had some decent players and that we had a chance to win two or three of our first eight games," Hatch said. "Obviously, we have gone far beyond our early expectations. The worse we can be at Christmas break is 4-3. I'm very pleased."

He came to Marymount from Virginia Wesleyan in Norfolk, where he was an assistant coach for nine years. Besides being the Saints' coach, he is assistant athletic director and sports information director, and works in the admissions office.

His biggest challenge was filling his roster; only 140 of the 1,500 undergraduates are male. Fourteen freshmen came to the first practice in October and 12 stuck with the team.

"The kids believe they can win," Hatch said. "Our goal is to have a winning season, which, for a first-year program, may be unrealistic. I don't know how we're going to do the rest of the season; it's too soon to tell. I'm just hoping to play well and learn."

After they beat Wesleyan on opening night, the Saints lost to Bridgewater by 22 points, then won three straight by at least 16, over Christendom, St. Mary's, and Wesleyan again. Marymount's streak was stopped Dec. 5 by Newport Apprentice, despite a seven-point halftime lead. Marymount also lost its next game, Dec. 11, to Christopher Newport, 82-64.

"I'm surprised we've played this well," said 6-foot-6 forward Rick Hagerman, from Manassas Park High School. "We knew we had a good team but I think we've surprised some people. We should win 10 or 12 games, at least. We just have to play as a team."

The Saints are led by point guard Pierre Gardner, a Richmond product who is averaging 21.7 points per game. Six-foot-4 forward Mike Saale (Lake Braddock High School) has scored 12.7 points a game and Hagerman 10.5. Other local players who have played a lot are guards Jerry McFarland (Bishop Ireton) and Scott Benson (Eleanor Roosevelt), forward P.J. Kelly (Falls Church), and 6-7 center Mike Dobbel (Takoma Academy).

Gardner, who is 5-10, had 31 points and 11 rebounds in the opener and 26 points against Christendom. Saale has scored more than 20 points twice in six games.

"The way we've started I think we surprised a lot of people," Saale said. "Give us a few years and we're just going to get better and better."

He is one of 39 males who live on the Glebe Road campus, but he said it isn't an awkward situation. "It's not that bad, really," he said, laughing. "You can't complain with that many girls around."

Meanwhile, Marymount's women's team is 6-1 and has a well-established program. In addition to basketball, the school had a men's soccer team this fall and plans on adding tennis and golf.

"The students are really excited," Hatch said. "The athletic director {Laurie Priest} is pleased with what we've done, and there's no pressure on us. The girls team is playing well also, and I think some of the enthusiasm from our program has carried over to theirs. This is a really exciting time for the school."

Concerning recruits, he will have to compete with some of the area's smaller schools, but he thinks that Marymount is an alternative to the large, local programs. "If people hear about us, the program is going to grow," he said. "Kids will come here and get a chance to play where, if they went to George Mason {in nearby Fairfax}, they wouldn't get a chance in Division I."