American University had almost as many heroes as players last night in its 85-74 victory over East Coast Conference opponent Drexel at Fort Myer.

Guard Robin Hoey, who scored a game-high 21 points, destroyed the Dragon 2-3 zone defense by making 10 of 15 shots, most from beyond 15 feet.

Forward Dennis Ross set the tone early by scoring 14 of his 17 points in the first half, all on layups and followups off rebounds.

When the Dragons clogged the middle to stop Ross at the beginning of the second half, forward Mark Nickens took over and scored 12 of his 19 points.

But none was better than point guard Gordon Austin, who entered the game with the Eagles struggling with a 24-23 lead and orchestrated the offense in grand style.

Austin, the 5-11 sophomore from Linden, N.J., drove the Dragon guard corp silly with penetrating moves to the basket and relentless defensive pressure. In 27 minutes, Austin made all four of his shots and both free throws for 10 points and had nine assists.

"We tried to cut down Austin's penetration by picking him up at half-court, hoping he'd have to give up the ball," said Drexel Coach Eddie Burke. The strategy didn't work. With Austin running the show and Hoey nailing jumpers, AU rolled to a 44-34 halftime lead and coasted to its 17th victory. j

The Eagles remained undefeated in the conference and became only the second AU team since 1959 to win more than 16 games. They also assured themselves of a home-court game in the first or second round of next month's ECC tournament. One victory in two games next week in Philadelphia would give the Eagles a bye in the tourney.

After watching his road-weary team lose its fourth in a row and the sixth of its last seven, Burke said AU is as good as any of the ECC teams and should not be in awe of the Philadelphia schools that have dominated the conference since its inception.

"They don't have anything to be in awe of," Burke said. "AU is so quick and can do so many things. The Philadelphia schools are big, but only Temple is quick enough to combat some of the things AU does so well, like penetrating and using that zone press defense."

The loss was even more disheartening for Burke because his team shot 55 percent for the game, 64 percent in the first half when the Dragons trailed by 10.

AU shot 53 percent in the first 20 minutes and 60 percent for the game. Only Eddie Sloane, who has a sore thumb, made less than half his shots. "It was either great shooting or terrible defense," Burke said of both teams. "

Another key to AU's rather easy victory was its ability to hold Len Hatzenbeller to 14 points, nine under his league-leading average.

The Eagles found that the best way to keep him from scoring was to have the ball. With Austin running the 1-4 spread offense, AU controlled the tempo to second half and kept the Dragons off-balance with a diversified attack.

AU became sloppy at the start of the second half, committing four turnovers as its lead dwindled to 44-41 on Dragon freshman Mike Mitchell's four straight points.

Eagle Coach Gary Williams called a timeout and sent his team back into his box-and-one offense. Austin made two steals and assisted on baskets by Nickens and Hoey as AU ran its lead back to 10, where it stayed.

"When we run that spread offense like we're supposed to," Austin said, "my job is to open up the middle. Even if I get stuck in their defense, I have an outlet because my teammates are in spots where I expect them to be. With Hoey hitting open jumpers like that, the defense is off-balance and it's not as hard to drive."

Said Burke, "And penetration kills any zone."