Once again, American University played its heart out. And once again, the young struggling Eagles came up losers.

AU played George Mason tough for 36 minutes before a dry spell that cost it a 77-71 decision in an ECAC South game before 1,385 last night at Fort Myer.

In a game filled with stretches of good and bad plays, the Patriots (11-8, 6-3) finally assured themselves of their third straight victory with Rob Rose's six consecutive free throws in the final 27 seconds.

"We were very fortunate to win tonight," George Mason Coach Joe Harrington said. "AU is very much improved and is a scrappy bunch. They played with intensity and confidence as a team without (Frank) Ross. We hit that one spurt and that was the difference."

So it was. The hustling Eagles, playing their sixth straight game without their leading scorer (Ross has a bruised thigh) shot well and played sound defense until a crucial three-minute span.

AU (6-14, 1-7) took a 43-42 lead on a follow-up shot by Eric White (13 points, nine rebounds). At that point, George Mason took advantage of some Eagle mistakes to gain control.

George Mason's aggressive pressure forced a bad pass inside, a missed shot by Jim Lutz (one for 11 from the field), a high pass that flew past Steve Nesmith (23 points) out of bounds, a 10-second violation and a back-court call against point guard Mike Sampson.

In the interim, George Mason's Warren Green, who continues to play well, scored on a steal, Carlos Yates (23 points) made a three-point play, Brian Miller put in a 14-footer and Ricky Wilson (17) drilled in one from the corner as the Patriots assumed a 51-43 advantage with 11:30 to play.

"They changed defenses on us and our kids haven't played long enough to be able to recognize such things," said AU Coach Eddie Tapscott. "They just need to be involved in more game situations. I wasn't unhappy with the way our kids played. They really played hard."

When you have no inside game at all, it's very difficult to wipe out a deficit. But the Eagles, relying totally on the 16-footer, scuffled and scuffled, managing to close to 57-54 with less than six minutes to play.

The Patriots upped their lead to seven points, as Wilson and Mike Dufrene each sank a free throw and Rose dashed in for a fast-break basket with four minutes to play.

Thanks to some missed free throws by George Mason, AU cut the lead to 69-67 after Chuckie West slipped along the base line for a bank shot with 42 seconds to play.

Miller missed the front end of a one-and-one and AU came down looking for the tie. Sampson spotted White along the free-throw line and shoveled him the ball. White's jumper banged off the front rim right back to him. The 6-foot-5 forward grabbed the ball and put up the follow. That missed, too, and Rose came away with the rebound.

"Hey, we got it down to two, got a shot and a follow," Tapscott said.

Rose (18) was fouled and made two from the line for a 71-67 lead. With 11 seconds to play, the Eagles made it a two-point game again after Nesmith's follow-up basket.

The Eagles sent Rose to the line again and the junior made two more to give George Mason a four-point cushion with eight seconds to play.

"I've been shooting the ball pretty good in practice," said Rose, who is finally healthy after an assortment of injuries all season. "They weren't the same team we played last time (George Mason won, 104-78). They executed real well."

The Patriots got out of Sampson's way as he raced in for a layup with two seconds left. AU then called a timeout, its sixth of the game and one over the limit, resulting in a technical foul.

"What the heck," said Tapscott, explaining why he opted to take a technical foul. "They might miss the free throw and we might go all the way and score. You got to try."

But Rose made two more shots and this one was history.

AU, sparked by the long-range shooting of Nesmith, West and White, led by five before the Patriots muscled their way back.

Yates, who missed his first five tries from the floor, scored eight straight points, including a base-line jump shot that sent his team up, 28-27. The teams exchanged baskets until Nesmith's two free throws with one second left gave AU a 33-32 lead at intermission.