George Washington jumped to a 17-4 lead last night and the 1,500 watching in Smith Center prepared to enjoy an opening-game blowout of Towson State.

However, before the final buzzer brought relief, the loyalists in the stands and Coach Gerry Gimelstob were on the edge of their seats. It took a blown layup by Towson and clutch free-throw shooting by GW for the Colonials to squeeze out an 80-77 victory.

Although GW never trailed after turning a 2-1 deficit into a 13-2 lead, the East Coast Conference Tigers had their chances. They erased all but one point of that early 13-point deficit by the last minute of the first half, closed to 46-45 early in the second half and still made it close after a 7 1/2-minute drought from the field sent the Colonials in front, 60-46.

The tenacious Tigers, pressing full court, closed to 71-70 with 2:02 left on three-point plays by Donald Jones and Tom Speicher, the junior who led Laurel to the 1980 Maryland AA championship.

At that point, Mark Cooley's steal and long feed to Rica Page gave Towson a chance to move ahead. But Page, the sophomore playmaker from Rockville, missed the layup and the Tigers never again had an opportunity to pull in front.

GW, which made 32 of 47 free throws, scored its last 11 points at the foul line. After Page's failure, sophomore Mike Brown collected three of a possible four points and freshmen Craig Helms and Steve Frick and junior Dave Hobel all made both ends of one-and-one chances.

"I'm pleased we were able to get away with a win," Gimelstob said. "Obviously, we'll have to show a lot more improvement to play with Temple Tuesday. But I'm pleased with our poise at the end, the way so many different players stepped up to the line and hit key free throws."

The field-goal shooting and overall play were something else. GW connected on only 24 of 65 shots and committed 19 turnovers. Towson, 28 of 64 from the field, had 20 turnovers and 32 personal fouls.

Senior Mark Cooley was the Tigers' top scorer.

Brown, the Colonials' scoring leader last year, was the game's top scorer with 24 points and matched his career high of 16 rebounds.

Troy Webster, the highly touted freshman from Newark, N.J., got 18 points in his debut. Held scoreless except from the foul line in the first half, he was a key factor in GW's 14-1 run early in the second half, making three shots and setting up a fourth with a steal. His flashy underhanded layup that made it 56-46, brought the loudest crowd reaction .

Darryl Webster, the freshman from Coolidge, grabbed 11 rebounds before fouling out. Helms, the third freshman starter in an unprecedented opening-game move for GW, was impressive in the early 17-4 surge. He also brought cheers with a backhanded post feed to Troy Webster on the base line.

Towson was charged with nine fouls in the first seven minutes and it appeared GW would be shooting a lot of free throws. The Colonials did, but not in the next six minutes, as Towson moved into a collapsing zone and closed to two points while GW resorted to some ill-advised long shots. Then, in expanding a 25-23 margin to 34-23 over the two minutes that followed, GW made good on 12 chances at the line.

Gallaudet Invitational: Rod Terry scored 24 points and Frank Dillard had 23 to lead Newport News (4-1) to a 97-79 victory over Montgomery-Germantown in the championship. Germantown's record evened at 1-1.

Rod Dozier scored 21 points to help Prince George's (1-1) defeat Gallaudet, 78-44, in the consolation game. Kevin Smith and Daryl Wetzel led the Bison (1-3) with nine points each.

Both Terry and Dillard were named to the all-tournament team, along with Newport News center Wayne Kirby, Germantown guards Kenny Dove and Mark Brandenburg, and Gallaudet's Wetzel.