American University controlled the game for all of 39 minutes tonight before Tony Costner's layup with 41 seconds left helped St. Joseph's rally past the Eagles, 63-60, in the East Coast Conference tournament title game at the Palestra.

Sometimes, it just isn't meant to be.

Costner, a 6-foot-10 freshman, was the difference tonight, finishing with 23 points and 10 rebounds. He scored 11 points and had six rebounds two weeks ago when AU won an emotional 84-83 overtime game here.

In avenging that defeat and stopping a nine-game AU winning streak, the Hawks (22-7) earned the automatic bid to the NCAA tournament that goes to the ECC tournament winner. AU (24-5) will now sit by the phone this morning and hope for an at-large bid to the NCAA's 48-team field. If it does not come, the Eagles surely will be one of the first teams selected for the National Invitation Tourament.

If St. Joe's Coach Jimmy Lynam were on the NCAA selection committee, AU wouldn't have to worry about being picked for one of the 22 at-large bids.

"Someone would have to give me a hell of a good reason if AU isn't picked for the NCAA," Lynam, a former AU coach, said seconds after his team's victory. "They belong there."

Up until the final suspenseful minutes, the AU throng thought that the automatic bid was sewn up. The Eagles led by six points, 54-48, with 4:09 left. Then the Hawks, who once trailed by 14 in the first half, rallied again, using zone-trap presses and the same type of harrassing defenses AU has used with so much success this season.

The AU turnovers led to a Lonnie McFarlan 18-footer from the corner and two free throws each by John Smith and Costner, who tied the game, 54-54, with 2:54 remaining. Seconds later, McFarlan, who burned the Eagles for 31 points in the team's first meeting, than converted a three-point playt after a steal at midcourt. St. Joe's was now ahead, 57-54.

"That was the key," AU forward Mark Nickens said. "They switched to that press and it bothered us. We just didn't execute well against it."

Despite the sudden jitters, the Eagles still were in the game. Nickens made a nice move and was fouled. He sank both shots to cut the deficit to 57-56 with 2:13 left. St. Joe's then spread its offense, finally forcing the Eagles to foul. Bryan Warrick, playing on a bad knee, made both ends of a one-and-one for a three-point Hawk lead with 1:13 to go. AU then made its final bid. Gordon Austin, whose three leaning 10-foot jumpers in the lane kept the Eagles alive in the second half, made two foul shots to get his team back to 59-58. Ed Sloane then made a sensational steal of the inbounds pass and made a bank shot off, nudging AU ahead, 60-59, with 56 seconds left.

Now it was St. Joe's turn. Everyone in the house knew the Hawks would try to get the ball inside to Costner. After all, it was his inside power moves that kept the Hawks in this game. So it seemed the only logical play.

The ball did go inside and Costner spun to his right and banked the ball off the glass. AU's Juan Jones slapped the ball out of the basket and goal-tending was called, giving St. Jose's a 60-59 lead with 41 seconds to play. Costner was fouled on the play but missed the free throw.

Nickens' long jumper was slightly blocked by Smith and McFarlan got the rebound with 10 seconds left. But he was called for a double dribble near midcourt and the Eagles got a second chance. This time Robin Hoey, probably the Eagles' best outside shooter, tried a leaning 16-footer from the side. The ball was off to the right, and St. Joseph's came down with the rebound.

"I had a good shot, it just didn't go," said a dejected Hoey. "It hurts to lose when you control the game all the way. Everbody played well and we had them, had them."

Warrick was intentionally fouled and made both shots to close out the scoring and start a wild celebration.

"The height hurt us at the end," said AU Coach Gary Williams, assessed a technical for protesting a call in the first half. "They did a good job of getting the ball inside even though we were ahead. We were having trouble getting the ball inside their 2-3 zone so I slowed the game to bring them out when we were six up late in the second half. Then, they switched to that trap and it gave us problems."

Lynam agreed the combination of presses was the key to his team's comeback, "We forced those few turnovers and that was the difference," he said.

The Eagles got over a two-minute spell of nervousness at the beginning and took control. Sloane, who led his team with 15 points, Nickens (11), Hoey and Dennis Ross took turns scoring until AU had its biggest lead, 31-17, late in the first half. Good defense forced the Hawks into nine turnovers in a five-minute stretch and AU converted seven of them into 11 points.

Costner was a one-man gang in the first half. He scored nine of the Hawks' last 11 points to finish with 15. No other Hawk had more than two, yet they trailed only 33-25 at intermission.