It has been a strange period for BYU basketball. In the past six days the Cougars have shown more looks than a mime troupe.

Last Thursday night they shot an impressive 60 percent from the field, but ended up ekeing out a one-point overtime victory over Air Force. Tuesday night they were on the other end, losing 79-78 to the very same Air Force team. In between, they mashed Colorado State by 15, looking for one night like a stable of thoroughbreds.In that six-day period the Cougars have learned a few things:

- It's sometimes better to be lucky than good.

- Both wouldn't be bad.

- Right now, they are neither.

- Turnabout is fair play.

Last week, freshman John Fish sank one of two free throws in the waning seconds to give the Cougars an 89-88 victory at Colorado Springs. Tuesday's game had an eerie familiarity to it. Air Force sophomore Aaron Benson went to the line with the Cougars ahead by one and just four seconds remaining. He missed both shots. But senior forward Mark Slimko took down the rebound and put the ball back up at the buzzer to give the Falcons the victory.

"It made 22,000 people sound like 22," said Air Force forward Chad Kimble.

For all their flaws, the Cougars are becoming loveable in a strange sort of way. Heaven knows, they try. Tuesday they played one of the worst first halves imaginable, shooting only 35 percent. For the final two minutes, with BYU trailing by by 21, Coach Ladell Andersen sent up a distress flare. He cleared out his bench, looking for someone - anyone - who had an interest in playing some good basketball. "Sluggish," said Smith, in describing the first half. "What were we doing?"

Embarrassing themselves, mainly.

The reserves - Alan Astle, John Fish, Mark Heslop, Steve Andrus and Paul Briggs - performed admirably, cutting the 21-point lead to 16 by halftime. In that time freshman guard Heslop nailed two long shots and junior forward Andrus swatted a shot into the dorms.

Then there was the second half. BYU muddled around, staying about 16 points down for much of the way, then suddenly went on a run that cut the lead to nine. Smith - who had 20 of his 28 points in the second half - did most of the work, taking his all-American form to the baseline and inside with impressive regularity.

While it was Smith that brought the Cougars back, it was at least partly Smith's doing that cost them the game.

With 1:38 remaining and the Falcons ready to cough up a three-point lead in the face of BYU's full-court press, Smith's man, Kimble, rebounded a Raymond Dudley shot and put it back with 1:38 to go. Fish fouled Kimble on the play and the ensuing free throw put the lead back up to 76-70.

After another Falcon free throw, the Cougars staged a final furious return. Marty Haws scored on a driving shot and added two free throws. Andy Toolson collected two more with 27 seconds to go after a steal by Mark Heslop, bringing the Cougars to a 77-76 deficit.

BYU then went to work fouling for profit. With 24 seconds to go the Cougars picked on sophomore Sean Giles, a 50 percent free throw shooter. He missed the front of a one-and-one. Haws put the Cougars up by one on a pair of free throws with 14 seconds to go.

Benson, who got loose underneath, was fouled with four seconds remaining. But the foul wasn't an altogether poor risk. The Cougars led by one, and Benson was a 50 percent foul shooter.

If he hit his average, it meant overtime.

He missed both.

On the rebound Kimble tipped the ball slightly as Smith went up for the rebound. Slimko got by Smith and came down with the ball, banking it in at the buzzer.

"Whether Kimble tipped it or not, I should have had it," said Smith. "I don't care how many rebounds you get in a night (he had 16), you don't get that one you don't deserve anything . . . stupid, I can't believe it."

Try as they might, the Cougars couldn't hold down Falcon guard Ray Dudley. The league's top scorer netted 26 points, just one off his average. "He can go down there and go three, six, nine, 12 if you don't cover him," said Andersen.

Most of Dudley's damaging shots this time were the two-point variety. When the Cougars cut the lead to 10 with 16 minutes to go, Dudley came back and scored. When they closed to eight with 7:24 left on Smith's 3-pointer, Dudley answered with one of his own. When Smith followed with two free throws, Dudley scored a basket of his own.

But when the Falcons found themselves trailing by one with eight seconds left, their plan was to go to the money man, Dudley, and everyone in Provo knew.

The Cougars covered him like a rash.

Air Force got the ball to Benson, who proceeded to miss not one, but two free throws, much to the delight of the 19,750 in attendance. Had he made one, the game would have gone into overtime. As it was, the miss provided Slimko with a chance to win it.

Asked if he had won a game at the buzzer before, Slimko said, "In high school. But not in front of 20,000 fans."

The loss left the Cougars at 8-8 overall and 3-4 in the WAC, while Air Force improved to 10-8 and 2-5. BYU has already lost two conference games at home.