After winning the close games all season, Catholic University lost the one that counted the most, falling to Eastern Mennonite, 77-74, last night in the opening round of the Old Dominion Conference playoffs at Brookland Gym.

With Eastern Mennonite leading, 73-71, and 62 seconds left, the Cardinals had trouble finding an open man for a shot. After 47 seconds had passed, Marty Favret's three-point attempt missed and he fouled the Royals' Jeff Bourne on the rebound.

Bourne made both free throws for a four-point lead with 12 seconds left. A three-pointer by Luke D'Alessio kept the outcome questionable, but D'Alessio fouled Ken Shank on the inbounds pass and Shank made both free throws for a 77-74 lead.

A three-point attempt by guard A.J. McNiff fell short and the Cardinals' unexpectedly successful season was at an end.

"We had our chances," said Catholic Coach Jack Bruen. "We let too much time get off the clock. (John) Winkler's the guy we go to in this situation. He was open a couple of times but we couldn't get it to him."

With their tallest player only 6-3 and not even a starter, the Cardinals had been picked to finish last in the ODAC. But they won eight close games and finished 13-11, good for third place in the conference.

Catholic began last night with the fast-breaking style that had carried it most of the season. A jump shot and layup by guard Darren Heath (23 points) gave the Cardinals a quick, 8-2 lead.

Another layup by Heath and a jumper by D'Alessio gave the Cardinals a 17-11 lead with 11:34 remaining. A turnaround shot by guard Billy Leap three minutes later gave the Royals (13-12) their first lead, 21-19, and the teams played conservatively for the rest of the half. A base line jumper by McNiff tied the game at halftime, 37-37.

Two shots by Heath broke the halftime tie, but Catholic could manage no greater margin. Two layups by Dave Eaves, the last at 5:05, put the Royals up, 69-65.

Leonard Dow led the Royals with 25 points and Jeff Bourne had 14.