They tell you the spectators sit on one row of benches, about eight feet from the court and against the wall. Then they say, well, if they have to, they can put some people on the stage behind one of the baskets. Somehow, they fit 300 fans into American University's Cassell Center gym.

"It's the Fenway Park of college basketball," said Steve Hamrick, women's sports information director at AU.

"The first time I saw it," said junior AU point guard Jody Thornton, "I thought it was a practice gym."

The way the Eagles are playing, fans soon might have to be turned away, as more and more people are coming to see the women's basketball team having the finest season in the school's history.

Although they lost Monday in overtime to Colonial Athletic Association power James Madison after leading by five points with two minutes left in regulation, the Eagles still have the best record, 10-4, of all the Washington area women's teams.

For the first time in eight years, the Eagles have a record that is more than five games above .500. And the Cassell Center, where the Eagles are drawing twice as many people as last year and where 300 sound more like 600, is turning out to be a plus.

"It took a lot to get used to," junior forward Kathy Hughes said of the gym, "but after a while it was home." She added jokingly, "We know where all the dead spots are."

"Any other school coming up here has much more room (on their home court)," said Thornton. "And when they come in with people on top of them, I know they have to feel crowded and their depth perception has to be off."

Wherever the Eagles have played this season, they usually have felt right at home. They lost two close games on the road, including the 80-73 overtime loss to James Madison. The other was a 74-70 loss to St. Peter's, a team that had the No. 1 scoring defense in the country at the time.

The only thing stopping the Eagles from becoming a top 20 team, they feel, is a victory over another top 20-caliber team. They have come awfully close this season.

"It was a very tough loss (against Madison)," said Coach Linda Ziemke, who has built the program after taking over in 1978. "First of all, you have to become a good team. Then you have to learn to win those games.

"We think we have seen enough. We think the next game will be the one. We need that one big win that puts way down deep in your gut that you've done it before."

Until this season, Ziemke has had to deal with a limited budget, mostly working with partial scholarships. But with the team's improvement, the athletic department has given her three full scholarships to offer recruits for next season and as many as she needs in the following years.

This season, with a freshman, two sophomores and two juniors in the lineup, the Eagles have beaten Virginia Commonwealth, UNC-Wilmington, Howard, Cheyney and George Washington. Although they lost at home to Maryland, 64-60, it was an improvement over losses to the Terrapins the previous three years of 95-47, 100-49 and 66-43.

Thornton, who holds AU's all-time career assist mark and set a school record with 15 assists against UNC-Wilmington, turned down recruiters at notable schools such as Penn State and Syracuse to come to AU and start right away.

"Everything seemed so gloomy my freshman year," said Thornton, who is averaging 10.7 points per game. "We had these old uniforms and an old gym, with about 10 people in there a game, and we couldn't even run a play right. I came into this program and it was like the bottom of the bottoms."

After Thornton and Hughes' freshman year, Ziemke began to build the team's foundation, recruiting sophomore forward Beth Shearer, sophomore center Kia Cooper and freshman forward Kelly Lane, the first high school all-America to come to AU.

Lane came to AU along with her high school coach, Shirley Hess, who had a 64-3 record at Our Lady of Mercy in Rochester, N.Y., and is now the Eagles' first full-time assistant. Both have played a major role in AU's success this year.

Some say Lane might have more talent than any player ever at AU, and she's backing it up by shooting nearly 60 percent from the field and averaging 18.1 points and 7.5 rebounds per game.

With Shearer (11.2 points) and Cooper (7.6 rebounds) on the front line, and Dana Diller (7.8) at the swing guard, the Eagles get help in rebounding and scoring.

Another difference this year is the play from the bench, led by sophomore Janine Lorimer and Hughes.

"We haven't even peaked," said Hughes. "We're not near our potential. I guess it's better to be at our potential at the end of the season than peak right now."

In May 1987, the Cassell Center gym will be replaced by the new Khashoggi Center, close in size to George Washington's Smith Center. There will be no more playing in "the hole," as the players affectionately call it, beneath the wooden rafters and on the old wooden floor.

"Whatever you want to call it, it's home," said Hughes.