Questions about difference

I recently came across this example sentence, explaining the phrase ということ

昨夕、友達はパーティーから帰ってこなかったということを聞いたら、心配していた。             When I heard (the fact that = ということ), my friend didn’t come home last night from a party, I was worried.

When using the ということ construction, a noun clause will be formed.

昨夕、友達はパーティーから帰ってこなかった聞いたら、心配していた。
What’s the difference? The meaning is exactly the same; and from “All About Particles” this usage of the particle と is absolutely correct, like also in the following examples:

  • ~と思う
  • ~と

Sooooo — what’s the difference, or ain’t I gettin’ the hang of something (again)?

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