American University frittered away a nine-point lead in the second half and then lost, 68-62, tonight when underdog Drexel made nine of 10 free throws in overtime in the semifinals of the East Coast Conference basketball tournament.

American, which fell in the ECC final last year here in the Palestra after narrowly beating Drexel in the semifinals, wasn't as fortunate this time mainly because the Eagles (21-8) couldn't snap out of their late-season foul shooting slump.

They missed five of 10 in the second half and two of five in overtime to belie their 78 percent season's accuracy. In the last four games, the Eagles have missed 45 foul shots.

Still, Coach Gary Williams insisted that his team deserves a bid to the National Invitation Tournament. The Eagles lost in the NIT's first round last season after winning 24 games.

"Teams with 15 wins are going around saying they should get in (to the NIT), so I think a team with 21 deserves consideration," he said.

But Williams would have preferred to have been talking about Saturday's ECC final and meeting St. Joseph's for the automatic bid to the NCAA tournament. St. Joseph's, the defending champion, advanced by beating La Salle, 83-71, in tonight's first game.

Williams well knew the Eagles should be in that title game. They had this one in control after a sloppy first half, only to let Drexel's fine pressure defense and their own sloppy play the last nine minutes of regulation overcome them. It was the second time Drexel (19-10) had defeated American this season.

Even after all their mistakes, the Eagles still had the final shot of regulation. They held the ball the last 72 seconds, calling a timeout with 12 to go. Then playmaker Gordon Austin went one on one against Mike Moran, who refused to be fooled by Austin's spin move at the foul line. Austin was forced to take a jump shot that barely reached the rim and the game was into overtime with the score tied at 57.

"The play is set up hoping Gordon beats his man and then dishes it inside when someone tries to help out on him," Williams said. "But Gordon was still covered. We would have preferred a better shot, but they did a good job on him."

Austin had one of those good news, bad news nights. He had a miserable first half, but scored 12 points in the second to spark a rally that saw the Eagles erase a four-point halftime deficit and take a 48-39 lead with 9:26 left. Drexel already had committed nine turnovers in the half and, in desperation, changed from a 1-2-2 zone to a very aggressive man-to-man.

That move altered the game tone. American was outscored, 18-9, the remainder of regulation, while throwing the ball away four times and missing four of six shots. The key sequence came with 1:15 to go in regulation when Drexel's Charles Hickman made one free throw, then missed the second, only to have teammate Derrick Joynes wind up with the rebound. Joynes turned it into a basket, was fouled, made his free throw and the game suddenly was tied at 57.

Drexel quickly took command in overtime when Richard Congo, who had 19 points, got a layup. Mark Nickens, who led American with 17, missed a jumper and guard John Siorek gave Drexel a four-point lead with two free throws.

But American almost came back. After two foul shots by Juan Jones, Drexel turned over the ball and Austin, a 78 percent foul shooter, was hacked on his dribble with 54 seconds left. But he missed the first of the one-on-one, Drexel countered with two free throws and the game was over.