The Washington Diplomats, playing perhaps their finest overall defensive game this year, draped a blanket over the hapless New England Tea Men tonight and easily came away with a 3-1 triumph in a North American Soccer League game before a sparse crowd of 1,446 at Boston University's Nickerson Field.

The Tea Men, in dropping their eighth game in 11 outings, outshot the Dips, 24-18, but were never in control.

Diplomat defenders Bob Iarusci, Tommy O'Hara, Don Droege and Mike Dillon supported keeper Billy Irwin, back in the starting lineup after missing two games with a pulled hamstring, and had no trouble halting the Tea Men as Washington won its fifth straight.

"It was the best game the defense has played this year," Iarusei said. "The one goal they got was questionable. I don't think they deserved a penalty kick on that play. They got one good shot in the second half, and that was it."

Washington grabbed a 1-0 lead in the first half on an O'Hara goal 9:28 before intermission. O'Hara, who said he has a bet with the other Dip defenders on who scores the most points, worked a basketball style of give-and-go play to perfection to put the Dips ahead.

O'Hara, one of the best overlapping defenders in the NASL, sent a nice pass to midfielder Sonny Askew. O'Hara immediately received the ballback and scored.

Kevin Keelan, the 37-year-old keeper for the Tea Men, never had a chance on the shot.

Washington's 1-0 lead grew to 2-3 when Bobby Stokes, the player who might win Coach Gordon Bradley's MVP award this season, whipped an Iarusci pass past Keelan for a goal with 5:32 elapsed in the second half.

The deficit was too much for New England to overcome. The Tea Men had scored only eight goals in 1-3 games, so the law of averages didn't favor them.

"Things were not kind to us," New England Coach Noel Cantwell said. "Washington is a good defensive team and they got the maximum nine points. They're strong in the back. They won't find the goal opportunities against as many clubs as they found against us. We didn't play too well."

Washington's aggressive, hustling defense had a lot to do with the Tea Men's lack of opportunities. Iarusci, Droege and Co. certainly did the job of containing New England's front line of Brian Alderson, Daly and Steve Reid, especially in the second half.

"We made a lot of mistakes on this field," Bradley said, "but we knew what we wanted-nine points-and we went afte rit. We should have scored six goals.

"It was a good overall performance. Bill (Irwin) made two good saves to keep us ahead. That penalty kick put them back in the game."

Washington, 8-2 and tied with the Cosmos for first place in the National Conference's Eastern Division with 71 points, was rolling along with its seemingly safe advantage when Dillon was called for a hand ball in the penalty area.

The penalty gave New England a penalty kick, and Keith Weller bombed the one-on-one freebie past Irwin to cut the deficit in half, 2-1, at the 71:02 mark.

The call did not sit too well with the Dips.

"The hand ball wasn't intentional and it should not have been called in that situation," Bradley said. "And, it was a delayed whistle."

"The ball just bounced up and hit my hand," said Dillon, the only Washington playe rwho has played every minute this season. "I was playing the ball, and then the ball played me."

New England's final chance for victory disapeared when Rene Breevoort, starting in place of injured center midfielder Jim Steele, slipped his first goal of the year past Keelan.