We'll call it Berserk Ball. Beethoven at 78. Two '56 Chevies going 75, on ice. American University and St. Joseph's careening all over Fort Myer last night in the sort of old-fashioned classic rivalry that doesn't end so much as it gets interrupted for a few days or months.

For anyone close to disgusted with the recent trend of college basketball, AU-St. Joe's is a treat, a week of birthdays. While the alleged giants of the game play pass-and-prayer basketball, stall so many games into boredom, the overachieving Eagles and Hawks flap all over the floor every second.

Two basketball barns, the Palestra in Philly and Fort Myer here, bulge to the breaking point. Loud? It's so crazy you can't even hear AU Coach Gary Williams.

Purists love this affair because although it lacks a half-dozen pro prospects and sustained excellence, it has a style close to unique: two teams playing for nothing more than pride going chest-to-chest the length of the court in games almost legislated not to be decided until the final few seconds.

It was that way again last night. The Hawks won, 51-49, much as AU had won the East Coast Conference regular-season match last season. St. Joe's won in the ECC tournament rematch. AU hopes last year was an omen, that it will prevail if there is another tournament meeting next week.

Last night's loss makes winning that tournament almost mandatory to gain the NCAA playoffs. With a far better record, AU was denied an NCAA spot a year ago after a final-second playoff loss to the Hawks.

Probably St. Joe's should have won by more last night. It was in control more often, especially in the first half, although AU did fritter a five-point lead in the final 12 minutes.

As usual, it was more hectic than heroic. The Hawks threw the ball away about twice as often, but ultimately won in nearly the way AU was afraid might happen. With a lead, they forced AU into situations terribly tough to handle.

"A war, wasn't it?" Brad Greenberg, St. Joe's assistant and former AU standout player, said.

Always is.

For the first 13 minutes, AU's worst worries became reality. The offense was tight and tentative, the players either taking aim from too long or too out of control. Worse, the one player for whom the Eagles had not devised a defense went wild.

That would be freshman Bob Lojeweki, a nice player but hardly a franchise off his previous 25 games. So he went out and matched his scoring average, nine points, before the game was half over.

The Eagles usually are successful walking the wild side of basketball, with helter-skelter presses and traps that often end in turnover layups. Some insiders were worried before the game that the Hawks might be the faster birds last night, that splendid guards Jeffery Clark and Bryan Warrick might cut full-court presses to shreds.

That happened early.

AU wanted a half-court game, a chance to spread it defensive wings in a way that would keep the ball from the one possibly top-flight potential pro, Tony Costner. From long range, St. Joe's is ordinary, but the dratted Lojewski kept spoiling all AU's strategy.

With a three-point play and six-foot jumper, Lojewski helped St. Joe's to a 7-0 lead. Too high for its own good, AU mishandled the ball three times, put up an air ball, got a shot blocked and missed two foul shots in the first four minutes.

St. Joe's got a lead, and a big one, 15-7. The AU faithful were fretting more than casual fans might have realized, because the Hawks usually are wonderful front runners. With Clark and Warrick, they spread the court, pull the defense away from Costner and create grand one-on-one chances.

That offense is so good it had a name: Four to Score.

But it never really got untracked. AU finally gathered itself and found ways to score. And the usually poised Hawks went daffy.

From those early depths, AU crawled to a 23-23 halftime tie, in part because the wrong Hawks were handling the ball. Nobody from AU shot the lights out, or even made them flicker, but eight-for-24 accuracy was good enough to turn a possible blowout into the tension-filled ending for which everyone hoped.

AU's offense is three-on-five, Gordon Austin, Ed Sloane and Mark Nickens trying to invent ways to outmaneuver whatever tricky defenses the always clever Hawks devise.

Together, the trio missed far more shots than they made. But while Lojewski's hot hand opened the way for Costner to score 10 points in the first half, the 6-11 center hardly touched the ball most of the final 20 minutes. And when Costner did get it, he often threw it away.

Both teams made more mistakes than they could afford, tiny ones that seemed insignificant at the time but got the losing coaches locker-kicking mad when there was time for reflection.

With 6:40 left in the game and the score tied at 41, AU called time before a St. Joe's inbounds pass under its basket. Surprisingly, Lojewski somehow slipped through the defense, took a little lob pass and dunked the ball. A critical mistake, it later developed, an inexcusable one.

The fine irony for the Hawks was creating a turnover by the gifted Austin with 100 seconds left. Austin is marvelous in the air, capable either of shooting or passing to the man the defense leaves free in its double-team effort.

This time Clark guessed what Austin would do, stepped squarely in front of him and drew a charge. Although Williams growled furiously, neutral watchers thought it the correct call.

Frustrated by Austin earlier, or perhaps hurt by an elbow that put him on the floor, Clark went at the AU point guard with his finger pointing furiously. The classy Warrick grabbed him and pulled him away.

After Lonnie McFarlan made the two free throws that assured victory with 15 seconds left, after a harmless jumper by Nickens, everybody grabbed an opponent's hand and walked away. And looked forward to next time.