Three days before the start of the Atlantic 10 tournament, George Washington University Coach John Kuester got just what he needed in the regular season finale last night at Smith Center.

Led by sophomore Ellis McKennie's fine overall performance, the Colonials secured the seventh spot in the conference by defeating Penn State, 81-74, before 2,429 fans.

GW (13-14, 7-11 in the conference) will play No. 10 Rutgers in the first round Saturday in Morgantown, W.Va. The winner faces No. 2 Rhode Island in the second round. Fourth-seeded Penn State (13-13, 9-9) draws No. 5 St. Joseph's.

"This gives us momentum by winning our last game," Kuester said. "Our kids just have to concentrate and play . . . Anything can happen in the tournament. We were extraordinary in the first season {nonconference games}, up and down in the conference, and our third life is the tourney so it's anybody's ball game."

McKennie ended with 19 points, seven rebounds, nine assists and four steals. Seniors Joe Dooley and Gerald Jackson, in their last home game, added 18 and 13 points respectively. Wes Jones, Ed Fogell (nine of 10 from the floor), and Tony Ward had 19 points apiece for the Nittany Lions.

The Colonials can dwell on two key parts of the game. With the score tied at 52 and 11 minutes remaining, George Washington went on a 10-0 run to take the lead for good. When the Nittany Lions crept back into it, the Colonials made 12 straight free throws in the final 2:05.

Overall, the Colonials made 17 of 21 free throws and were 13 for 13 in the second half. Penn State was three for five total.

After taking a 40-37 halftime lead, the Colonials used a 2-1-2 zone defense to pull away. From 52-52, George Washington went on its big run, scoring eight straight points off the fast break.

Dooley had a steal and dunk for a 54-52 lead. Jackson took a pass from Dooley for an easy layup, senior Ken Barer converted a reverse layup on a Jackson pass, and Jackson finished another break for a 60-52 lead with 8:46 left.

Center Max Blank scored from inside to make it 62-52 before Ward buried a three-point shot to break the streak.

"We've had problems putting two good halves together this year, but tonight we did," said McKennie, who is from Philadelphia.

The Nittany Lions hung in and cut the deficit to six with about two minutes left. But the Colonials, 70 percent from the line for the year, got their last 12 points on fouls. McKennie and Dooley, who had a career high in points, made four each.

Penn State had leads of 14-5 and 17-8, but the Colonials stayed close and finished the half with a 10-2 run into the lead.