Every game in college basketball is a step, but few of those steps are the same distance. And the one the George Washington men's team took backward yesterday after a 98-93 overtime loss to North Carolina Charlotte at Smith Center may prove to be huge.

"Let's be realistic," said GW Coach Tom Penders, looking ahead with his up-and-down players. "We may be a .500 team. We may have a shot at a [National Invitation Tournament] bid. I don't know. We're going to beat some good teams. We're going to lose some games. I've got to be able to ride this out."

A victory over the 49ers would have helped cancel ugly losses to Bradley and Siena if the very inexperienced Colonials prove worthy of postseason consideration. But they dropped to 5-6 after missing five free throws in the final 30 seconds of regulation and after UNCC junior Diego Guevara followed a controversial call by making three free throws to send the game into an extra period.

It was a wild affair, with the teams combining for an astonishing 62 three-point tries. UNC Charlotte's 11 for 29 was acceptable. But GW's 7 for 33 was not. Flu-stricken freshman SirValiant Brown missed all 13 of his three-pointers and needed 24 shots to score 18 points. Point guard Bernard Barrow missed eight of his 10 three-pointers. The Colonials had nearly twice as many free throws at UNC Charlotte (45), but missed 15.

UNC Charlotte Coach Bobby Lutz has a view of GW that proved prophetic: "If you're up 20, you're not in control. If you're down 20, you're not out of it."

GW raced to a 17-3 lead on the sort of outside-inside play that Penders covets. But the 49ers not only rallied, but gained a 54-48 lead midway through the second half. Then the Colonials seemed to gain control for good when freshman Chris Monroe's two free throws lifted their lead to 80-72 with 93 seconds left in regulation.

But Brown, so ill he had to leave the game once to throw up, missed two foul shots with 30 seconds left. But GW maintained an 84-80 lead when Jobey Thomas missed a three-pointer. After Monroe missed two free throws, however, UNC Charlotte forward James Zimmerman hit a drive with eight seconds left. Brown was fouled immediately, made a foul shot that lifted the GW lead to 85-82 and Penders called a timeout.

In the huddle, Penders told the Colonials to force a tough shot, but "don't foul a three-point shooter."

Guevara usually is very good from beyond the arc, but had missed 15 of his last 17 three-pointers before yesterday. He was 4 for 10 during the game, and Monroe guarded him closely as he dribbled quickly toward the line on the left wing. Then Brown moved to help Monroe, which is exactly what Guevara wanted.

"I saw he was too close to me, so I just leaned down to him," Guevara said. "He wasn't very smart [not] to get out of the way. He stood right there--and that's how I got the foul. I wasn't trying to make [the shot]. I just threw the ball and leaned into him."

Brown insisted he did not hit Guevara and Penders hoped official Larry Lembo would see Guevara trying to force a foul and let play continue. But Lembo blew his whistle with four seconds left. Guevara, 94 percent from the line before yesterday, made all three to gain the tie.

"It was a call that any coach would love to have . . . on the road," Penders said. "That's a gift from God. You just don't get that. . . . I may retire from coaching if I ever get that call on the road."

Colonials Notes: A source said GW is expected to talk with 6-foot-9 power forward Attila Cosby about transfering from New Mexico next week. The source, responding to a story in the Washington Times, added that permission by New Mexico should not be a problem. Cosby, who played at DeMatha and Oak Hill Academy, would not be eligible until January 2001.

CAPTION: Francisco de Miranda converts two of his 15 points, but Colonials blew eight-point lead late in regulation and fell to 5-6.