American University basketball Coach Gary Williams said today he still had difficulty believing his team lost to Tennessee on a 40-foot shot at the buzzer Friday night.

Gary Carter's shot earned Tennessee a 59-58 victory in the first round of the Volunteer Classic, a game Williams described today "as the toughest loss ever, and I hope the toughest of the rest of my career."

Tennessee trailed by a point and had the ball with 90 seconds left. The Volunteers decided to hold the ball for a final shot, calling a timeout with 15 seconds remaining to set it up. Carter took the shot with five seconds left. He missed, and American's Mark Nickens got the rebound.

Nickens was fouled immediately by Carter with three seconds left. Williams said today he thought it could have been called an intentional foul for two free throws. But officials said the foul was not intentional. It was Tennessee's sixth foul of the period, a nonshooting foul for the Eagles, who had to take the ball out of bounds under their basket. After the foul, Tennessee quickly called a timeout to set up its defense for a steal.

Williams said, "During the timeout, I told the kids to throw the ball long, so that even if they (Tennessee) got the ball, they'd have to beat us with a long shot."

That is exactly what happened. Nickens tried to throw the ball deep down the right side of the court to Ed Sloane. The ball was slightly underthrown and Carter leaped, caught the pass, dribbled twice and made a high looping shot that fell through at the buzzer.

"This was the best tournament game American's ever played," Williams said. "And for us to be in a situation to beat the host team in the first round. You know Tennessee had never lost an opening game in this thing since 1967. And people here had never even heard of us. They didn't even know where we're from. That hurts, too.

"There were a lot of tears in the locker room. We really wanted this one badly because not many people, even on campus, gave us much of a chance. I told the kids that these things happen in basketball, and in life. You just have to fight back from it.

"It hurts because that game was ours. Fate just said otherwise."