American University responded to a challenge laid down by its coach, Ed Tapscott, and scrapped its way to a 78-63 upset of George Washington last night before 1,284 at Fort Myer.

American (3-3) took control after the Colonials overcame an eight-point halftime deficit to tie the game at 38 with 15 minutes remaining in the second half.

Sophomore guard Mike Sumner and junior guard Dale Spears (17 points each) hit key baskets down the stretch for American. George Washington (5-2) didn't help itself by collecting three technical fouls in the second half. The Eagles cashed in, hitting 70 percent from the foul line after coming into the game hitting only 57 percent.

And American's front court, under fire from Tapscott, responded by outrebounding George Washington, 42-35.

"I challenged them," Tapscott said. "I told them that we needed them to come through, that our guards were working awfully hard, and they had been producing. I asked them, 'Are you going to let this be the game when you wake up and start to play?' I guess they took me seriously."

"Yeah, that's true," said senior center Tom Scherer. "To tell you the truth, I'm not sure {why the front court had been struggling}. We've been working real hard in practice. It's helped us. For me, I'm not playing tentatively anymore, and that's the way I had been playing at the start of the season."

The Colonials, attempting to get off to the school's best start since the 1955-56 season, put themselves in a deep hole by shooting only 24 percent (seven of 29) from the field in the first half. They shot 41 percent in the second half, 33 percent for the game.

"We just didn't play well," George Washington Coach John Kuester said. "The second half, we played with a great deal of emotion. We played hard, but we just couldn't get over the hump."

George Washington opened the second half with a 14-6 run. After Ellis McKennie (nine points) tied the game with a jumper from the right base line, Mike Sampson (15 points) untied it with a driving layup. The game stayed close, but McKennie was called for a technical with 13:44 left. Spears hit the free throw.

American gradually expanded its lead, going up by nine when the Colonials' bench was called for a technical, George Washington's third of the half. The Colonials had two players foul out, and overall had 28 fouls to American's 23.

Spears' two free throws expanded the lead to 58-49 with 6:34 to play. Spears scored again from the right corner to move the lead to 11. And George Washington wasn't nearly sharp enough on this night to come back.

"The mind was willing tonight, but the body just wasn't," Kuester said. "I told the kids to look ahead, look ahead to finals and Rutgers {the Colonials' opponent next week}."

"Defense was the key to our victory," said Spears, who hit five of nine from two-point range, two of three from three-pont range. "We shot the ball better {53 percent} than we have been all year. I think we had been around 41 percent, and you're just not going to win many games shooting like that."

American led by as many as 12 in the first half. A 15-3 American run, concluding with two free throws by Spears, gave the Eagles a 22-10 lead with seven minutes to go.

The Colonials played about as poorly as possible in the first 15 minutes, committing 11 turnovers (12 for the half) and shooting an abysmal two of 17 from the field. On one sequence, a pass from Max Blank hit Joe Dooley in the head and went out of bounds.

Meanwhile, American controlled the boards on both ends. If the Eagles had hit their free throws, they might have had an easier time. But they only hit three of seven from the line early, and George Washington crept back in the game.

The Colonials broke a first-half streak of nearly 10 minutes without a field goal when Blank hit from right of the foul line. Seconds later, his offensive rebound brought George Washington back within eight. They got as close as four at 28-24 before Spears hit a three-pointer from the left corner to give American a 32-24 halftime lead. GEORGE WASHINGTON Min FG FT R A PF T McKennie 31 2-11 5-8 4 3 5 9 Jones 29 6-12 0-0 8 1 5 12 Blank 30 5-10 4-5 6 0

Halftime: AU, 32-24

Three-point goals: GW 2-14 (Jackson 1-4, Dooley 0-2, Smith 0-3, Barer 1-4, Sitney 0-1); AU 2-4 (Sampson 0-1

Technicals: GW 3 (McKennie, Jones, Bench)

A: 1,784