American University warmed up only long enough in chilly Fort Myer last night to run off a 10-0 streak in the final minutes and slip past determined Lafayette, 63-54, in an East Coast Conference game.

Mark Nickens scored 13 of his game-high 19 points after intermission, nine in the first 10 minutes of the second half, helping the Eagles move from a 25-25 tie to a 44-33 lead.

But AU, 4-1 in the conference and 8-5 overall, wasn't having one of its better evenings. The Eagles relaxed on defense and the Leopards closed to 44-42 with 9:21 to play.

"It was just too cold in there," said AU guard Gordon Austin, who had eight points and eight assists. "We just couldn't get warm. Lafayette contained our break pretty good and I couldn't penetrate the zone, until the second half."

Chaz Keller's only basket of the night pulled Lafayette even closer, 51-50, with 4:56 left. But the visitors' overaggressiveness--they had 29 fouls to AU's 12--killed them down the stretch.

Three fouls sent Ed Sloane (16 points) to the line and the junior sank six of six. Amid Sloane's free throw shooting clinic, Austin drove the lane for a basket and Nickens scored on a baseline jumper to send the Eagles up, 61-50, with 1:25 remaining. Lafayette, 1-3 and 6-7, was through, this time for good.

"Lafayette did a real good job preparing for us," said Coach Gary Williams. "The key to the game was that we were able to get the ball inside and get some easier shots. Gordon started getting good penetration and getting the ball to the guys."

Both sides did a good job of masquerading as basketball teams for much of the evening. The Eagles made only six of 20 shots the first half and stood around and waved at the Leopards, who were making 12 of 23. Only good free throw shooting and a fine effort by Fernando Aunon, who had 10 points, prevented AU from being yelled at even more by Williams during a stinging halftime speech.

Nickens got the Eagles on track in the first few minutes of the second half, making three shots over the Leopards' zone, and both Sloane and David Ridley got three-point plays during a 19-8 blitz that gave their team what looked like a comfortable advantage at 11 points.

That lead held up all of six minutes as Chet Brightful made three straight shots and bruising, 220-pound forward Allen Goetz muscled in five points to get the visitors back into the game.

"Their fouls caught up with them," said Austin. "They came back, but they were too aggressive. They were a little tentative with their zone pressure then and I was able to get inside and pass off."

American made but 43 percent of its shots, but 25 of 34 free throws. The Eagles, with Nickens grabbing eight and Juan Jones seven, outrebounded the taller Leopards, 28-21. AU also forced 19 turnovers.

"You hate to live and die by the press, but we just couldn't get moving," Williams said. "We didn't score a lot after we forced turnovers, but they started missing and we eventually caught up and went ahead."