The women from the College of William and Mary played with all the fury of a team that had been told it would never play again, which essentially it had. Several of the players had been awake all or most of the previous night, venting anger, being depressed, plotting strategy. The bags under their eyes were as big as saddles in some cases, but they ransacked American University, 91-75, Wednesday night at Bender Arena. They played angry, and when it was over they looked mad enough to play another game.

"They were considering this for a year, but we didn't think they had the guts to pull the plug on us," junior Susan Lyon said. "We've got the lowest budget in the conference. We're already underfunded, but we'd be happy to stay at Econo Lodge if they'd just let us play. We'll play for a coach who's right out of college who won't command much money, if they'd just let us play."

For now, William and Mary has decided the women's basketball team will not play. Wrestling and men's and women's swimming also are to be dropped, but women's basketball will stay at the center of attention -- make that controversy -- because its elimination may violate Title IX guidelines for women's sports. Of course it's about money. The school says women's basketball is putting a strain on women's soccer, women's lacrosse and women's field hockey, traditionally strong sports at William and Mary that have to have more money to stay competitive. The women on the basketball team say the college can do a better job distributing the money it does have, especially when last fall it received a gift of $5 million for athletic scholarships from alumnus Walter J. Zable.

This may get ugly very soon. After the American U. game, the Tribe players went into a conference room above the arena and unanimously voted to retain Arthur Bryant, a Philadelphia lawyer now headquartered here. Bryant, executive director of Trial Lawyers for Public Justice, is serious. Three weeks into a trial against Temple University, which had cut women's basketball, Temple settled out of federal district court to the tune of about $500,000. The team was reinstated.

Less than a year ago, the University of Oklahoma tried to eliminate its women's basketball team. The Oklahoma Senate adopted by a 41-6 vote a resolution deploring the elimination of the program. Armed with that, Bryant came riding into town.

OU lawyers, who already had heard of Bryant's success in Philadelphia, asked how much time they had to think about an alternative plan. "I told them, 'You've got 24 hours to reinstate this team,' " Bryant recalled Wednesday night. " 'We're going to federal court, we're going to embarrass you, you're going to look like dopes.' " Within five hours the University of Oklahoma welcomed its women's basketball team back to campus.

Bryant is pondering his next move. You can bet discussions with the Virginia attorney general's office will begin soon. "This is not a private school," Bryant said. "It is supported by tax dollars. The governor of Virginia {L. Douglas Wilder} appoints the board. Is basketball okay for men but not for women all of a sudden?"

Bryant and the William and Mary players believe the college has violated Title IX. He opens the Federal Register and points to two clauses, one that demands "sufficient interest" and another test for the "ability to sustain a team." University President Paul Verkuil said yesterday: "Why does every college in the U.S. have to have the same flagship sport? I don't know that Title IX has answered that question for us. Women's basketball is a wonderful sport, but we want to go another way. A school ought to have the opportunity to set its own priorities. Women's soccer, women's lacrosse, women's field hockey and tennis, among other things, enable us to have a well-rounded women's sports program without basketball. We can't maintain the level of quality in those other sports unless we're willing to be more generous with grants."

Verkuil seems rational enough about this. "If it turns out we're wrong about this, that we're in violation of Title IX, I am prepared to correct our position," he said. "I don't want us to be discriminatory. I wouldn't even be satisfied with cutting it close."

Verkuil and athletic department officials ought to realize their mistake, before the university is embarrassed in court -- they likely will lose more than the $300,000 they plan to save by these cuts -- and reinstate women's basketball. It is wrong to cut a sport that has a 28-81 record the past five years to keep ones that are championship contenders. The first area we'd examine for fat would be the football team (isn't that the case everywhere?).

The women's basketball team has certainly sacrificed enough. Coach Pat Megel came back for this season because he'd accept a lower salary than almost anyone the school could hire, a good-faith gesture that prompted to school to say it would do everything possible to keep the program. "The school said, 'We'll do what we can,' but I could see the smoke screen," Megel said, adding he felt betrayed. "If there have to be cuts, can't we do it unilaterally? We'd be willing to drop our number of scholarships if necessary."

Women's basketball in the United States generally has been scandal-free, unlike men's hoops. Women's basketball players, almost always, are more involved with campus life than their male counterparts. Their GPAs are higher. Their majors are real ones. They don't have pro basketball to look forward to; the participation is the thing. Women's basketball in many cases ought to be the model for men's basketball.

Carla Casey is a sophomore forward from South Lakes High in Reston. "I live for game day. Even if I'm riding the bench, just to be a part of the action, to sweat, is so thrilling for me. Even to lose sometimes is all right. There's no glamour here, no roar of the crowd. We don't have any silky-smooth uniforms and supersonic shoes. The joy of the game is all we have, and it's incredible that they're trying to take that away."