Lefty Driesell knew it had not been pretty. In fact, forward Mark Fothergill called it downright ugly. Nevertheless, the Maryland basketball coach was grinning after his team's 73-71 victory over American last night.

"You know," Driesell said slyly, "a lot of people said they were gonna beat us."

Stranger things have happened. American over Georgetown and Maryland over UCLA come to mind. And last night, the Terrapins (6-2) could have been had by the scrappy Eagles (6-4). But with the game up for grabs at 50-49, Maryland leading, AU did a disappearing act right before the eyes of 10,925 witnesses in Cole Field House.

Before it was over, Mark Nickens, the Eagles' leading scorer, had shot four of 12 from the field, including four straight misses with the game on the line. Although Adrian Branch, Maryland's leading scorer, was little better, shooting just five of 15, he got more help than Nickens, most notably from Ben Coleman (19 points, 10 rebounds); Jeff Adkins (14 points), and Fothergill (10 points, nine rebounds). That was enough to offset the brilliant performance of Juan Jones, who had 16 points, 16 rebounds and six assists.

"I knew coming in that we could beat these guys," said AU Coach Ed Tapscott. "It was there for us, too. But we had that one stretch where nothing went right."

That stretch began just when it appeared that the Terrapins might be in trouble.

With 11:37 left in the game an Ed Sloane layup off a pretty feed from Jones had made it 50-49. When the Terrapins failed to get the ball across midcourt on their next possession, the Eagles looked ready to take the lead and command.

But David Ridley missed two free throws that could have given his team the lead. Nickens missed a long jump shot and Sloane missed another. Nickens missed two more. In between, Adkins hit a 20-footer, Jeff Baxter hit two foul shots and Coleman followed an Adkins miss. Another Coleman tap-in made it 60-54 with 6:17 left and when Nickens missed his fourth straight shot, a drive through the middle, the Terrapins went to a semistall.

"At halftime it was close and I wanted to contribute," said Nickens, who did not take a shot the first six minutes of the game before going to the bench with three fouls. "I thought I could maybe make up for what I didn't do the first half so I wound up rushing, forcing a few."

His poor marksmanship and AU's failure to look for the man with the hot hand (Jones) helped the Terrapins build their six-point lead. After that, they went to a semispread offense and consistently got inside.

Two Coleman foul shots with 1:27 left made it 68-56 and it looked like Driesell would get to play his subs the final 60 seconds. But AU didn't quit and, helped by awful Maryland foul shooting (13 of 23 for the game, four out of nine the last 90 seconds), the Eagles kept coming back. But time ran out on them, Nickens making the last basket of the game to create the final margin with two seconds left.

The most jubilant man in the building when it was over was Driesell. While his players were low-key about the victory, recognizing its sloppiness, Driesell was clearly relieved after what could have been a letdown game.

"He told us before these guys were upsetters," said Adkins. "I think when they beat Georgetown we knew how good they were."

"They're scrappy and all," Coleman said. "But we won the game, so I guess we're scrappier than they are."

Certainly, they weren't prettier. But that was okay with Driesell. "They had a lot of chances," he said softly, thinking back to the second half. "A lot of chances."