In desperate times, one must do desperate things. Having watched his team miss countless free throws in crucial situations all season, American University Coach Ed Tapscott decided to bring in a psychologist friend to work on his players' heads.

Whether Bob Cohen's talks about mental imagery in making free throws was successful has not been proven, but the confident Eagles sank 17 of 23 free throws last night, six in the final 44 seconds, to beat George Mason, 68-64, in a key Colonial Athletic Association contest before 3,450 at Bender Arena.

The Eagles' seventh consecutive win gave them a 14-12 overall mark but, most important, a 9-4 CAA record and sole possession of second place with a game remaining at James Madison Saturday night. The victory also was the Eagles' first ever over the Patriots (17-9, 8-5) after 10 defeats.

After learning Richmond had edged North Carolina-Wilmington, 61-60, to remain a game ahead in the conference at 10-3, Tapscott let out a loud hoot. But that news hardly surpassed the coach's joy over his team's tenacious effort.

"We won a big game to stay in contention for at least a tie for the CAA title and we finally beat George Mason," he said. "It was senior night with all those awards, roses, and the guys came out tight. In the second half, I told a joke to make them relax. I wanted the guys to push the tempo up, keep taking the shots. We had them the first half; we just didn't make them."

The Eagles got solid efforts from senior guard Mike Sampson (18 points, eight rebounds, four steals), Clarence Ingram (10 points) and Dale Spears (11 points, nine rebounds).

George Mason's Kenny Sanders, who always plays well against American, finished with 27 points and grabbed nine rebounds, and Brian Miller had 14 points. No other Patriot scored more than seven points.

The game was close throughout until the hosts, enjoying the fast-paced game they excel at, got a three-pointer and two free throws from Brock Wortman to move ahead, 48-40, with 12:47 left in the game.

But Sanders almost singlehandedly brought the Patriots back.

"We always have trouble with Kenny," Tapscott said. "We don't have anyone physical enough to hold him."

Miller made three three-pointers and Sanders scored three consecutive baskets as George Mason moved quickly in front, 59-50.

The Eagles, who won the backboard battle, 46-29, scored off offensive rebounds by Ron Davenport and Ingram sandwiched around a three-point goal by Sampson to regain the advantage, 62-59, with 3:35 to play.

"AU really hurt us on the boards. Had we made our shots . . . ," George Mason Coach Rick Barnes mused. "We wanted to take the break if it was there. And we were not as patient and we didn't execute as well as we should have."

The Patriots pulled even at 62 on free throws by Sanders and Steve Smith with 1:11 left.

Ingram, a 52 percent free throw shooter, then gave American a two-point cushion with two free throws with 44 seconds left. Ingram then came up with a big steal on the Patriots' ensuing possession. The ball went to Sampson, who was fouled and also made both shots for a four-point lead with 29 seconds left.

After a miss by George Mason, Fred Tillman pulled down the rebound and was fouled. He made one of two shots from the line and American's lead was 67-62, with 15 seconds to play.

Smith scored with two seconds left, but Wortman closed out the game and the Patriots' chances with another free throw.