Five days earlier, Atlantic Coast Conference officiating supervisor Fred Barakat had stood at a Raleigh, N.C., luncheon and called him "the best referee in the world."

But Henry Nichols wasn't there to hear it, and now it didn't matter. Now it was Monday night, and he was riding through the snow with fellow officials Tom Fraim and Tim Higgins, keeping a date with 32,329 fans and Jim Boeheim and John Thompson. "The Syracuses and the Georgetowns," Nichols said. He expected no tributes there.

So far the weekend had been easy. Saturday he'd been with the "N.C. States and the Louisvilles," for a delightful day in which the athletes stayed in their free-flowing patterns and the coaches stuck to their coaching. "An easy one," he said then, with an approving smile. He even laughed when a fan leaned out and yelled, "Nicholson, get in the game!" He liked that. "Don't tell the guy any different," he said.

And Sunday he had been in Chapel Hill, N.C., when the Georgia Techs beat the North Carolinas. He'd missed the very first call. "I called walking on Warren Martin (of the Carolinas) and I saw the wrong feet," he said. "Dean (Smith, coach of the Carolinas) started to say something and I said, 'Dean, I missed it. ' " That struck Smith speechless, as did the loss. Otherwise, no problems.

And on the next Wednesday he would ride to College Park, Md., for the Marylands and the Virginias, a dance of the elephants, a dilemma on every whistle. Nichols saw Len Bias of the Marylands knock Mel Kennedy of the Virginias to the floor. But he'd also seen what started it, so he gave Kennedy his fifth foul.

Virginia assistant Dave Odom yelled, "Hey, you've been letting Bias get away with that all year!"

Nichols replied, "No, I haven't. I haven't been down here all year. " But later he could only shake his head and say, "All we got out of this one was a paycheck. Tough game."

But they were all preludes and follow-ups to the Georgetowns and the Syracuses, to the madness and the challenge that awaited them all at the Carrier Dome.

"I just hope they don't throw those oranges," Fraim said. "That scares me."

"Hey, maybe the Florida freeze jacked up the prices," Higgins joked. ''Maybe the oranges are too expensive now."

"You guys," Nichols said. "Oranges. Don't worry about it."

But with less than four minutes gone, and with two national networks showing it and with the animals in full roar, Georgetown's Patrick Ewing attempted a foul shot. The ball hit the rim. An orange hit it, too. Thompson stormed out of his coaching box, waving the Hoyas to the bench. And Hank Nichols walked strongly to the sideline, both hands extended, trying to pierce the hurricane with his voice.

"I'll sort it out, John," Nichols said. "Let me sort it out!"

"You know," Higgins said later, "me or Tom could have gone over and tried to handle it. And we would have.

"But we both backed off, because we saw Hank in control. You know what I say about that situation? I say, 'Look, let the big dog eat.'"

Dr. Henry Nichols is the chairman of the Villanova University education department, father of four, former catcher in the Reds' system, former Marine, former high school basketball coach in Buffalo.

In many ways, Everyman.

He eats chicken and fish because of gallstones, and because it licked his weight problem. "For years, I thought my first name was 'You Fat,' " he said. "Now the kids really bust me. They want to eat the good stuff."

He can talk movingly about the ills and accomplishments of an American school system that "tries the impossible - it educates everybody, for free. " And he can also lecture you on why a charge isn't a block, or vice versa, based on "the POV. That's the Principle of Verticality."

And then he can hoist a light beer and tell stories that begin, "We're at Duke one time, with the Wake Forests," and always end with a laugh, after which he stubs out a cigarette and mutters, "If I could only get off these things . . . "

And you would never know that, in the last 15 years under college basketball's big top, nobody has done his job, coaches and players included, better than Nichols has.

Nichols has worked two Olympics and five NCAA finals.

He did a St. Bonaventure-Niagara freshman game that featured Bob Lanier against Calvin Murphy. "You're nothing but a big turkey," Murphy told Lanier, who leaned over in Murphy's face and growled, "Gobble, gobble, gobble."

In his second ACC game, he called a foul on John Roche at South Carolina. ''I didn't know I wasn't supposed to do that," Nichols said. "Roche looked at me like I was crazy and said, 'You bleep-bleeper!'"

He called John Wooden's last game, the 1975 NCAA final, in which The Wizard accused him of chicanery. He called the 1983 final, the one in which N.C. State's Lorenzo Charles gloriously slam-dunked Dereck Whittenburg's shot at the buzzer, and while the celebration filled the court, Nichols thought, ''God, I'm glad the shot was off-line. Otherwise, it's offensive goaltending for sure, and I'm in the soup."

He called a Maryland game in which Lefty Driesell cited 10 missed calls by Nichols and sent the film to the ACC supervisor. "Gee, Lefty, we're looking at the film and Hank got eight of them right," the supervisor said. "Yeah, well, he might've got 'em right on the film but he missed 'em in the damn game," Driesell snapped.

He has blown the whistle in the company of everybody who is anybody. Yet the coaches have long-term contracts. Nichols has been blackballed - i.e., asked never to work here again - at Brigham Young and Pierce Junior College alike. But he keeps working everywhere else, and the coaches and players feel at least a twinge of tranquility when they see him walk in. He is not exactly welcome, but he is trusted.

"The way I look at it, there's a lot wrong with the college game," Nichols said. "You got recruiting violations, academic problems, a lot of other stuff. The way I feel, we (referees) are the constant. If there's any integrity left in the game, it's with us."

And, he loves to add, he takes none of the wins and losses home. For Nichols , there is Villanova to go back to (a Villanova graduate, he cannot work Wildcat games). For Fraim, there is his printing business. For Paul Houseman, there is his insurance firm. "The coaches talk about us," Nichols said. "But in real life, we're not chopped liver."

In many ways, college officiating is in a Golden Age, and Nichols is responsible for much of it. Rules changes have helped, too. There are three refs now, "which means we can see the play from good angles instead of worrying about merely getting there," he said. There is a 45-second shot clock and the coaching box and more films and more liberal interpretations of contact and double-dribble that let the players do what they do best - play.

But officials have changed, too, not just officiating. In the old days, the most visible refs were the showmen. Everyone knew Charlie Eckman's endless patter and staccato whistles, Steve Honzo's inventive signals and perpetual suntan.

Mind you, Nichols loves them all. "Honzo was the best," he said. But with money invading the game like an epidemic, and perpetual TV, there came a need for someone to put officiating into the briefcase, to bring a sort of firm anonymity to things. Nichols slapped the latches shut.

"It's no longer enough to call what you see," Nichols said. "Nowadays, the only thing is to call it right. The homers are gone, and the three-ref thing has developed so many more good men. There's an emphasis on mechanics.

"But when you're doing a game, there comes a time when mechanics aren't enough. You have to be a people person. Credibility is often more important than ability. And you always go to the next game. Most of the time, I know I've missed one. But it doesn't keep me up nights, not when I've given the effort."

Last year in the Mideast Regional final at Lexington, Ky., Dicky Beal of the Kentuckys appeared to take several giant steps in the game's last minute. Nichols , standing right there, called nothing. The Illinoises cut the final margin to two, giving coach Lou Henson an opportunity to rip Nichols in front of the writers, which he did. Remember, a trip to the Final Four means $750,000 per school.

"I called it right," Nichols said firmly. "Several refs called me and said I called it right. It was a good no-call. I didn't agonize over that one, no, sir. If he (Beal) walked, I'll buy you dinner."

The flip side is a technical Nichols once called on an ACC assistant coach who was only calling a play at the time. "That was tough to live with," he said. When fans and coaches try to hold him to standards of infallibilty, Nichols 's smiling answer is the same: "Hey, if we were perfect, we wouldn't be doing this. " However, he knows all referees live from second to second. The wrong call, at the wrong second, can ruin an avocation.

In the 1975 ACC tournament first round, Jerry Schellenberg of the Wake Forests tried a long pass that, if it worked, would have beaten the North Carolinas. The ball veered near the scoreboard. "I almost called it, but I couldn't tell," Nichols said. His partner, who requests anonymity, said it did hit the board and gave the ball, and the game, to Carolina. To this day, Wake Forest continues to blackball that official, and, with it, sabotages his ACC career.

"One of their players missed three one-and-ones," Nichols said pointedly. ''But I guess that was all right. What I don't understand is, when your kid does something wrong, you don't stay mad for nine years. Why are we subjected to that?"

The following is sort of a Hank Nichols glossary, gleaned over three days of rental cars and salad bars:

Charge-Block: "We're getting that call right, thanks to the POV. If the defensive guy is there with his hands up, he's entitled to that space. See the whole play, it's no problem. The angle you get with three refs takes care of that."

Coaches: Nichols actually likes most of them. "They're under a lot of pressure. I answer their questions, communicate with them. The ones I don't like are always yapping about something. Sometimes I have to say, 'I can't call three seconds when you're yelling. You're breaking my concentration.'"

Duke: Scene of Nichols 's best story. "They're playing the Carolinas for the ACC title. Dean holds the ball. It's like 9-0 at halftime, and each of us have blown our whistle exactly once. We go in, and I say, 'Well, I got mine right. You got yours right. ' And I turn to Hal Grossman and say, 'You missed yours. You're the first guy in history to miss every call you made in a half. '"

Goaltending: Toughest call in basketball. "It's happening over our heads, and so quick," Nichols said. "If I'm not sure, I won't call it, which is a thing to use in any situation. " Said Fraim, "You give somebody two points on that, that's final, a big penalty."

In the Soup: In a tough situation. Higgins is at the Boston Colleges at the Connecticuts Saturday night, in which UConn blew two leads and lost in overtime. "We were in the soup," he said.

Rammy: Uncivilized behavior. As in, "Good thing the Marylands didn't get too rammy tonight."

Roast: Nichols was the subject of a charity roast in Raleigh last year, and several coaches showed up. Rollie Massimino called him "the best ref money can buy. " Norm Sloan of the Floridas, formerly of the N.C. States, said, ''You notice there aren't any representatives of a certain school (the Carolinas) here to roast Hank . Suspicions confirmed."

Rule Book: Yes, they read it regularly, especially on planes. "I don't have to tell you how bad off you are if you don't know the rule, and there's a lot of them. The South Carolinas have this guy who pump-fakes on every foul shot. Once, I called a technical. The guy working with me said no, it's just a violation. He was right. So I just told the players, 'Look, he pump-fakes. Don't go for it!'"

T Him Up: To give a technical foul. "He said I was cheating, so I T'd him up. " Nichols T'd up Memphis State coach Dana Kirk at Louisville once for that very accusation. Kirk repeated it thrice after the game, at which point a security guard grabbed Nichols 's arm, lest Hank punch Kirk up.

'I've been lucky," Hank Nichols said.

He might have been coaching, but he got fired at a Buffalo high school for going 2-18. "I had a center who was 6-7 until he jumped, at which point he became 6-5. " He might have been playing baseball, but Johnny Edwards was the Reds' catcher of the future. Nichols finally managed one minor league team and hit .300 at the same time. The Reds wanted him to manage, but not play. "You know how you dream," he said. He turned to other things.

He was a teacher near his home of Niagara Falls, and so was his wife (who still teaches at Marple-Newtown High). He was happy, and officiating on the side, but his wife encouraged him to go for his doctorate at Duke. While there, a Duke assistant coach named Hubie Brown told him to try for ACC games.

"That had never entered my mind," Nichols said. "So I refereed a scrimmage between Duke and Jacksonville. I saw Artis Gilmore and Pembrook Burrows. I said, 'I don't think I've worked with a 7-footer before. Here's two of them. ' But everybody liked me, I guess."

Nichols was working ACC varsity games in two years. Two years later, the ACC demanded that the veteran refs such as Honzo and Grossman give them first shot on their calendar. Many of them bailed out. Suddenly, there were openings for lots of games, good ones. Meanwhile, Nichols had gotten a job in the education department at Villanova. The word of his work got around, new conferences were forming, and Nichols eventually did the ACC, the Big East, the Atlantic 10, the Southeastern Conference, the Metro and even the Western Athletic Conference.

Once he worked 13 games in 13 days. Now, a four-game week is just about his limit. His son, Jeff, is interviewing for scholarships at Duke and Virginia, visiting Yale, Harvard and Princeton. The three daughters are growing. "My wife is terrific," Nichols said. "It's time for me to be home more often."

But Monday night, when the orange hit the backboard, home seemed a long way away.

Hank Nichols , Tom Fraim and Tim Higgins are riding down the hill at Syracuse. The Carrier Dome and the Georgetowns and the Syracuses are only memories now, good ones. They had made it.

There is laughter in the car. Also hunger.

"I told you about the oranges," Fraim says. "Told you."

"Did you see the guy wiping the orange off the backboard?" Nichols asks. ''The board looked worse after he wiped it, but I got him to do it for a reason. We had to calm things down. We had to find a way out of this. So I gave Patrick the two foul shots, and now Boeheim shakes hands with Thompson and makes his announcement (to knock off the orange-throwing, at the risk of the whole crowd being T'd up). Jimmy saved us. I'm telling you, John was headed home if an orange hit one of his kids."

"And what if you'd T'd up John for being out of the box? " Higgins asks with a shudder.

Says Nichols , "That's when you have to have some sense. That's when you ignore the rules and deal with people. If I'd gone with all the nice mechanics and the technicalities, that game isn't played. And then what? But one good thing did happen - they cut the beer off (at the concession stands) when everything hit the fan.

"A great game. I've never seen two halves so different. The first half, we were fighting for our lives. The second half, just terrific basketball. We don't have a feeling like this very often. We had a good crew, three friends working together. It was something."

They tell the driver how to find their old favorite Italian restaurant. And they keep talking.

"Know what Thompson told me at halftime? He said, 'Tell Nichols it's time to retire.'

"Yeah, but did you see us at the foul line. I tell him, 'I can't call what I don't see.' And he hands me his glasses!"

"And then Jimmy on the other end, he wants to know why I'm talking to Thompson so much. He can't get out of the coaching box. I say, 'Jimmy, you're breaking my concentration. ' God, those kids play hard . . . "

They see the restaurant, but no lights inside. It's closed. There are curses. "I've been looking forward to this for two months," Fraim said.

But then they head down the road and see another restaurant. There are cars outside. Kids inside. They're watching the ESPN replay. "Right," Nichols moans. "Just what I want to see."

"A game like that, you keep it under control," Higgins says. "You survive. You don't try to be flashy. You don't try to shoot a 63. You shoot four 68's, and you win the tournament."

Just then the waitress shows up with a bottle of Korbel Brut that looks as big as Andre Hawkins, of the Syracuses.

Fraim smiles. "That's just what I ordered," he says.

"Way to go, Tommy," Nichols says.

The champagne glasses are filled. The team makes a toast.

"Congratulations, boys," Hank Nichols says. "A job well done."