In October 1998, Georgetown Coach Patrick Knapp scheduled a game against Duke, a perennial top 25 women's team, for tonight. Knapp figured the trip to Durham, N.C., would be a good warm-up for the Hoyas' Big East Conference season, which he knew would heat up soon afterward.

He didn't know how right he was. When the Big East schedule was announced this past August, Knapp was startled to see that tonight's game would be followed by conference games against what seemed likely to be the Big East's top three teams--Connecticut, Notre Dame and Rutgers.

The way this season has unfolded, the Hoyas (7-3, 1-0) now face what has to be one of the most difficult four-game stretches any team in the nation will face this season--men's or women's. In a 14-day span, they will play four top 15 teams that have a combined 32-5 record.

Making Georgetown's situation even more difficult, center Danielle Hurley--the team's top rebounder and second-leading scorer--is out because of a foot stress fracture. She has missed the past three games and is out for at least the next two weeks, Knapp said.

At least the three Big East games will be at home.

"You've got to look at it one of two ways," Knapp said. "Are you going to be intimidated or be challenged? We're going to be challenged. We're going to try to win each game."

Hurley is the only senior who has played this season for the Hoyas. In her absence, playing time has been split among three freshmen: 6-foot-10 center Suzy Bendegue and forwards Nok Duany and Santia Jackson. Another freshman, guard Shawntese Charles, also figures into the team's playing rotation.

Georgetown is 3-0 in Hurley's absence, beating St. John's in its conference opener Dec. 9, then defeating Long Island and American. Since opening the season with a one-point loss to Fresno State and a three-point loss to Minnesota, the Hoyas are 7-1. Still, they are realistic about what awaits.

"We're young, but we're not stupid," said junior guard Katie Smrcka-Duffy, the team's leading scorer at 20.1 points a game. "We looked at the schedule and we knew what was coming up."

Knapp said he never has faced such a succession of difficult opponents, but he also said he is not making any special preparations.

"All you have to say to your team is, 'We have to play four top 20 teams in four games. There's no question you have to raise your level of play.' Boom. That's all," he said. "Now you have to get ready for Duke."

According to Smrcka-Duffy, this stretch comes at a good time, despite Hurley's injury. Duany is averaging 6.7 points and 5.3 rebounds per game for the season, while Jackson--who received no playing time in three of the team's first six games--is averaging 7.3 rebounds per game.

"Early in the season we were a little discombobulated on offense," Smrcka-Duffy said. "We had a lot of freshman, had a lot of things to learn. Now that we've had a few months to work on things, we've had a chance to get it down. The freshman have gotten involved."

"It's a reality check," said junior forward Nathalie Bourdereau. "I kind of look at it that it's good that it's those three in a row now and not at the end of the season. . . .

"Duke will be just a warm-up. And I like that we have U-Conn., right away. It'll show the freshmen that this is the real deal. This isn't Long Island we're up against."

All Top Opponents, All the Time

The Georgetown women's basketball team's next four games:

Tonight at No. 15 Duke (10-1), 7 p.m.

Tuesday vs. No. 1 Connecticut (9-0), 7 p.m.

Jan. 8 vs. No. 10 Notre Dame (7-2), noon

Jan. 12 vs. No. 12 Rutgers (6-2), noon