Early in the season, when its offense was stagnant, the George Washington University basketball team's best offense was the four-corners. Last night, when Rutgers' quickness and offensive rebounding almost overcame a big GW lead, the Colonials again resorted to the spread.

The result was sensational, the Colonials' inside-outside combination of center Mike Zagardo and guard Brian Magid carrying them to a 76-71 victory over the Eastern Eight leader before a frenzied crowd of 4,8000 at Smith Center.

The two seniors combined for 14 straight points as GW -- which led by as many as 18 -- nursed a four-point lead with 10 minutes to play and remained in control, 72-66, on Magid's 17-foot jumper with 1:32 remaining.

Magid came through with a season-high 28 points and Zagardo added 26 as the Colonials (13-5) won their fifth straight game, eight in their past nine and evened their league record at 4-4, thus keeping alive their hopes for a home game in the first round of the conference tournament.

The loss dropped Rutgers to 10-9, 5-2 in the conference.

Foul trouble also hurt the Colonials as point guard Curtis Jeffries sat out 15 minutes, including the final 5:03 after collecting his fifth foul. In the Magid-Zagardo shuffle, Jeffries' evolution into a solid point guard has gone practically unnoticed, if not unappreciated by his coach.

"He's been playing terrific," Coach Bob Tallent said after a Jeffries' night that included eight points, six assists, three steals, three rebounds and a cut across his right eyelid after catching an errant elbow.

But the Colonials survived at the end without him, taking advantage of the youth and mistakes of Rutgers to score on 11 of 15 possessions in the spread attack.

"That's the best we've played it, execpt early in the year," said Tallent, referring to a victory over Auburn in which the Colonials played four-to-score the entire game."We were masterful at it that night."

The score was 58-54, when Tallent called a timeout and ordered the spread.

"They're so quick," Tallent reasoned, "it's tough to run your regular man-to-man offense."

With Randy Davis inserted as a third guard, for better ball handling, the Colonials showed immediate results when Zagardo stepped around Rutgers freshman center Roy Hinson and took a back-door route to the basket, where a perfect Jeffries pass awaited him for an easy layup.

Hinson's inexperience proved decisive down the stretch.

On the next three possessions, he had a basket, but also committed a goal-tending offense against Magid and let Zagardo get the jump on him for one of GW's meager total of eight second-half rebounds.

It was 64-60 at the time and Jimmy Stepp, the GW sub for Jeffries, missed the front end of a bonus situation. The Colonials set up their spread again and Davis connected with Zagardo on such a nifty pass that all Hinson could do to prevent the ball from going through the hoop was commit another goal-tending offense.

That made the GW lead 66-60 with 3:45 to play. Rutgers scored on each of its next three possessions. But each time, the Colonials countered with patience and a score from Magid.

Rutgers Coach Tom Young was satisfied with his team's comeback. However, he said, "We got too far behind. We hurt ourselves too early. The freshmen were very ineffective the first half and we were not as quick as we had to be."

In addition, guard Daryl Strickland, the Knights' second-leading scorer, got into early foul trouble and did not score in 18 minutes of play. Kelvin Troy led Rutgers with 25 points.

The Knights scored 23 of their points following a 37-21 rebounding margin for the game.

"You take away their second and third shots," an excited Tallent said afterward, "and it's no contest."