The wheels were coming off for American University. The Eagles, on the verge of the biggest basketball upset in the school's history, had watched a 49-32 lead melt to 51-50 in less than five minutes and now, with five minutes left and Georgetown breathing down their collective neck, it looked as if panic had set in.

Enter Gordon Austin. Senior point guard. The back court glue that has held this team together during back-to-back 20-victory seasons. Austin could see his teammates glancing up at the clock. He could see that tentative look, the question marks in their eyes.

So, Austin did a foolish thing. He took the ball and drove straight at Patrick Ewing, who usually destroys silly little guards who try to roam his territory. But Austin is too hard-nosed to think negative thoughts, so there he went at Ewing, scooping the ball up and over the swooping giant. The ball hit the back rim and went through.

An eternity later, after the Eagles had held on for their 62-61 miracle last night, Austin's coach, Ed Tapscott, looked back on that play as perhaps the biggest in this, the biggest victory of his life.

"That play showed us that we could still take the ball to the basket, that we could still be aggressive," Tapscott said. "We had no momentum right then and Gordon gave it back to us. That's the kind of player he is."

Austin has been that kind of player for AU through a lot of adversity the last four years. Even though the program has accomplished remarkable things during that period, there have been so many near misses, the most recent a last-second loss at Iona Saturday.

"Finally, we got some of the luck," said Austin after scoring seven of his eight points during the frantic final five minutes. "They kept coming and coming at us at the end. We had to work hard just to get the ball in bounds. But we made just enough big plays to get through. What an unreal feeling this is."

The most unreal thing about Austin's play last night was that he played. Monday in practice he caught a knee in the thigh. He limped to the doctor, had some electrodes placed in the thigh to reduce the pain, then slept with his leg taped behind him all night.

"I didn't think about it during the game," he said. "We've waited so long for this. We knew we could do it if we played intelligently. They had to have a letdown after that Virginia game and I think they took us a little lightly. People can't understand how much this means to us."

The intensity of this special 40 minutes was most apparent seconds after the final buzzer. When it went off, Austin, overjoyed, grabbed the ball leaped in the air and hurled it the length of the court. The AU players enveloped each other in hugs of joy.

Then, Austin remembered, "I've got two papers to write tomorrow." His feet back on the ground, Austin began to limp. He was entitled.