George Mason redefined the term "winning ugly" last night, allowing an American University team it had left for dead to rally within seven points before Mason pulled out an 80-64 Colonal Athletic Association victory before 2,126 at the Patriot Center.

The victory, only Mason's third at home this season, raised its record to 8-7 overall and 2-1 in the CAA.

American, which has yet to beat George Mason in five tries, is 7-7 and 1-3.

Yet the Eagles, who had trailed by 19 points after a first half in which they shot 28 percent from the field, cut the lead to 65-58 on Frank Ross' jumper with 3:03 remaining.

But AU had to foul and Mason won at the line. Led by Ricky Wilson's six free throws, the Patriots made 13 of 16 foul shots in the last three minutes.

Freshman forward Kenny Sanders, back at Mason after a semester at Oklahoma, had 11 rebounds and a career-high 25 points.

"Since I haven't played that much, I just wanted to get the feel of the game," said Sanders, a graduate of McKinley Tech. "I just wanted to relax and let everything come into its own."

Wilson had a season-high 24 points and his four assists moved him into second place on the all-time school assist list. Senior forward Rob Rose had 18 points and 11 rebounds.

AU's Ross equaled his season average with 22 points, including nine in the last 6:23. But the Eagles missed the inside scoring (10.2 average) and rebounding (7.4) of forward Eric White, who missed his second straight game because of congenital high blood pressure.

American built its second-half rally around the same sort of trapping press that George Mason used against AU in the first half. The Eagles scored 11 of the first 15 points of the second half, forcing three turnovers, to close within 44-34 before George Mason Coach Joe Harrington called time with 16:19 to play.

"We lost our intensity," he said. "We allowed American to get back into the game."

Sanders disagreed: "American is a good team. They forced the issue and got back into the game because they wanted to. They earned it. We didn't let up."

Although the Eagles' pressure cut the Patriots' lead to 59-50 on Ross' jumper with 6:20 left, American sealed its fate when forced to foul.

"We played better in the second half," said American Coach Ed Tapscott. "But you have to put two good halves together to beat a decent team."

That American found itself in hailing distance at the half, 40-23, could be considered a minor miracle. The Eagles missed 15 of their first 16 shots, and got three points in the first 11 minutes.

American was clearly rattled by the press, a defense that caused five turnovers in the first five minutes and forced the Eagles to inbound the ball four times on one possession -- and that was just to get to half court. Catholic 79, Merchant Marine 75

At Catholic, Rob McCarry scored 30 points and John Winkler and Bobby Burns had 14 each, helping Catholic (6-6) win its fourth straight. Merchant Marine, which had won three straight, is 7-6.