In the morning, Mark Nickens watched as his father was buried. In the evening, it was understandable that he wasn't ready for basketball when the game between American University and Division III St. Mary's began.

Nickens missed his first shot, made a bad pass and was clearly hesitant. And, as a result, American was clinging to a 25-22 lead midway through the first half last night.

Mark's brother Ewyul, one of 40 people in the Nickens family who attended the funeral, then came to the game, took matters into his own hands. Ewyul left the Fort Myer stands and came down to perform a chant with the cheerleaders.

Mark Nickens saw his brother cheering. The next time down the floor, Nickens didn't hesitate. He made a 20-foot jumper for the first of eight quick points and the game never again was in doubt. The Eagles (2-0) took Nickens' cue and routed St. Mary's, 98-65.

"I looked up and saw my mother smiling and my brother with the cheerleaders and it carried me," said Nickens, who also lost his grandfather in the last week. "It generated an amount of energy I can't quantify. And it helped my game come back to where it hasn't been all week."

Nickens, with his family cheering wildly, finished with 19 points. But he had to share the night's honors with teammate Eddie Sloane, who scored a game-high 21 points, made four assists and grabbed six rebounds in just 29 minutes.

The victory has to be kept in perspective because the Saints' tallest player is 6 feet 5. AU, which needs Nickens and Sloane playing well, receives its first test of the season when the Eagles visit Wake Forest on Saturday afternoon.

It seemed AU was looking ahead to Wake last night in the early minutes. Eagle Coach Gary Williams shouted at his players continually for playing shabby defense.

"Our offense is geared around our defense, so Coach was understandably on us about it," said Sloane, who like Nickens went to Mackin High. "We weren't into the defense, mentally. We finally said to ourselves, 'Let's play defense like we're supposed to and blow them out of here.' "

When AU did that, St. Mary's (0-3) was finished.

Leading, 54-44, four minutes into the second half, the Eagles reached the defensive peak. AU's 2-1-2 zone defense held the Saints to two free throws for the next four minutes, while increasing its lead to 68-46 behind Sloane, Nickens and junior transfer Andre Adams.

St. Mary's managed a 10-foot jumper by Kevin Flamer with 10:45 to play, but didn't score again in the next four minutes. By that time, American had an 81-48 lead.

Shooting guard Mike Ayers, who scored 12 first-half points on a variety of long jumpers, scored only one field goal in the second half.