George Washington's young basketball team earned a merit badge for courage, if not a victory, last night.

Trailing by 17 points at halftime, GW battled back to within a point before Penn State sank six free throws in the final 1:14 to escape with a 75-72 victory in an Atlantic 10 conference game at Smith Center.

Penn State, the West Division leader with a 5-1 record and a 12-5 mark overall, seldom missed in the first 20 minutes. Rich Fetter made his first three attempts en route to a 21-point night and Dwight Gibson (18 points) sank two three-pointers from the 25-foot range to help the Nittany Lions take what appeared to be a safe 43-26 lead at intermission.

"They just didn't miss. We played good defense; they just couldn't miss," said Mike Brown, who finished with 16 points and guarded Fetter. "We knew they couldn't shoot that well in the second half."

They didn't. After making 19 of 26 field goals (73 percent), most of them from the 15- to 22-foot range, Penn State had a hard time getting easy shots in the second period. The Lions encountered a more aggressive Colonial team. GW (8-7, 1-4) played a tighter man-to-man defense, came up with a few more loose balls, limited the more physical Lions to one shot at a time and, most importantly, started hitting the open shots.

Troy Webster, who had 19 of his 25 points in the second half, and Darryl Webster (11 points, eight rebounds) accounted for 13 of their team's first 16 points as GW closed to within five points, 47-42, with 13:13 remining.

"We came back so fast, we surprised ourselves," said Troy Webster. "We got right there, but lost a few balls down the stretch. Penn State is a well-coached team. They didn't panic at all."

Had GW gone ahead, maybe the visitors might have been shaken. But the closest the hosts could get was one point. They did that twice, the second time on Brown's dunk after he came up with a loose ball to make it 67-66 with 1:58 left.

But Lion point guard Gibson scored on a drive. GW lost the ball on its next possession and fouled Alex Agudio. The freshman made both shots in the one-and-one situation and Penn State led by five, 71-66, with 1:14 left.

Dave Hobel's jump shot made it 73-70 with 19 seconds left. The GW guard was fouled but missed the free throw. The Colonials had little choice but to foul and Fetter clinched it with two shots from the line for a five-point Lion lead with six seconds left.

"Two different games," said Penn State Coach Dick Harter. "We dominated the first half, GW the second. GW came back like wild men. We had to hang in for dear life. We made the key free throws at the end."