American University, down by a point with 1:17 to play, held the ball for the final shot against heavily favored Wake Forest tonight. But forward Mark Nickens, who provided some perfect endings last season when AU won more games than ever before, missed a 20-foot jump shot with six seconds to play.

Wake Forest forward Anthony Teachey then made two free throws for the final margin, 66-63, at the Winston-Salem Coliseum.

"I really thought it was in," AU Coach Gary Williams said. "It looked good from the bench. He was shooting the ball real well tonight . . . We took a little gamble down there waiting for the last shot so that they couldn't get a shot at the other end."

After coming back from a 12-point deficit in the first half and a five-point disadvantage with less than three minutes to play, AU had pulled within 64-63 with 1:17 to play. Then the Eagles ran the clock down to 15 seconds and called time.

Williams said the Eagles were looking for playmaking guard Gordon Austin to penetrate and then pass to an open player for a good shot. Austin did penetrate, then passed back to Nickens.

But Wake got its second victory in three games.

For Nickens, it was a bitter end to a very difficult week; his grandfather and father died. Nickens didn't practice with the team this week until yesterday. "I'm trying to put all that behind me," Nickens said. "I try not to think about it."

It was AU's first loss after two victories over mediocre opposition; no one was really sure how good the Eagles would be this season after going 24-6 last season. But the all-around play of Nickens and guard Gordon Austin continually frustrated their taller Atlantic Coast Conference opponents.

When Wake was in a 2-3 zone defense, Nickens shot over it. When the Deacons went to a man-to-man scheme, Austin drove inside for layups, passed to front court players, or drew a foul. His 12 points were second high on the team.

Austin's aggressiveness against a less experienced Wake back court cut both ways, however. With Nickens scoring 16 in the first half, the Eagles had a 34-33 halftime lead, which they extended to a 54-46 bulge with 12:27 left in the game. But after Wake guard Mike Helms, who had 12 in the second half to pace Wake's comeback, hit a jumper from the top of the key, Austin quickly picked up two fouls.

That gave him four personals, and Williams reluctantly pulled him.

By the time Austin returned to the game and Andre Adams scored again for American, the Deacons had run off 11 unanswered points and taken the lead.