Jubil-ation was short-lived tonight for American University when a steal and a 40-foot shot at the buzzer by Tennessee's Gary Carter defeated the Eagles, 59-58, in the opening round of the Volunteer Classic.

"It was the toughest loss of my career," said American Coach Gary Williams. "I've lost one-point games before, but nothing like this. Luck just wasn't with us."

Two weeks ago AU lost to Wake Forest in the final seconds as Mark Nickens missed a short jumper with seven seconds to play and AU trailing by one.

Tonight, what appeared to be AU's most impressive win of the season turned into its most disappointing defeat within three seconds.

The Eagles had the ball and a 58-57 lead when center Juan Jones tried an in-bounds pass. Carter, who scored 22 points, leaped, intercepted the pass and shot; it was good.

Tennessee Coach Don DeVoe attributed the game-winning steal and basket to a "team effort" and luck.

"We were in what we call our center field defense where we try to keep them from throwing the ball long," DeVoe said. "We knew that if they got the ball in bounds long, the game would be over."

American (3-3) will meet Wyoming Saturday night in the consolation game. Wyoming lost to California, 77-75.

Tennessee was led in the scoring parade by Dale Ellis, who led all scorers with 25 points. American's Nickens and Ed Sloane scored 17 points each.

Williams said he feared the defeat would hurt the morale of his team. "They are really down. We thought we were in control. We thought we had the game won," Williams said. "Our problem now is to get ready for tomorrow."

American never trailed from 7:06 left in the second half until Carter's winning basket. Tennessee tied the score at 57 on a base line shot by Ellis and Gordon Austin followed with a free throw with two minutes to play to give American a 58-57 lead. The Eagles tried to hold the ball for the final minute, but Tennessee forced a turnover.

The Volunteers tried a game-winning shot by Carter with four seconds left, but he missed and Andre Adams rebounded for what appeared to be an Eagle victory. After a Tennessee timeout, Carter stole Jones' in-bounds pass and made the desperation shot to turn it into an Eagle defeat.