The George Mason men have spent the first month of the season raising doubts about whether they have enough scoring to defend their Colonial Athletic Association title. In the Patriots' league opener against American yesterday, junior forward Erik Herring did his part to allay those concerns.

Herring scored a career-high 24 points, and George Mason shook off a late comeback by American to emerge with a 76-71 victory before 2,128 at Patriot Center.

Junior center George Evans added 12 points, 5 rebounds, 5 steals and a career-high 7 blocked shots for the Patriots (4-4, 1-0), who were picked to win the CAA this season. But they have had trouble replacing the scoring of Jason Miskiri, whose eligibility ran out last season. Herring, who entered the game averaging 14.6 points, made 8 of 13 field goal attempts and 7 of 9 free throws yesterday.

"There's no pressure," Herring said. "We get a lot of balanced scoring from my teammates, our starters, our bench. They're all scoring well. I just want to be aggressive, because when I'm aggressive that opens up things for my teammates."

The Patriots also got 12 points and seven rebounds from forward Keith Holdan, and junior guard Tremaine Price had 14 points, all from the free throw line.

American (5-3, 0-1) was led by sophomore forward Patrick Doctor, who had 19 points, and senior guard Jarion Childs, who added 17.

American entered the game with its best start in 10 years. But the Eagles appeared overmatched against George Mason's defense, which forced 18 turnovers. The Eagles had to work hard almost every time to beat George Mason's press, and American's half-court offense appeared hurried.

After American took a 6-2 lead, George Mason responded with 14 consecutive points. Evans started things with a free throw, which was followed by Herring's jumper and Holdan's three-pointer.

A steal and layup by Childs stopped the run, but George Mason later built its biggest lead, 34-17, with 5 minutes 31 seconds left in the half and went into halftime with a 42-29 lead.

"We showed good patience," Evans said. American "did a good job when they backed into a zone. We moved the ball really well. We just hit our shots tonight."

George Mason continued to dominate during the first few minutes of the second half, but its offense then started to struggle. That gave the Eagles their first opening to come back, and they took advantage with a 9-0 run that culminated with 10:16 remaining on Doctor's layup to whittle the deficit to 52-45.

A minute later, American had a chance to draw closer, but junior guard Ronald Hearns missed a three-point attempt. Twenty-two seconds later, Evans took an entry pass from Herring and dunked emphatically. American junior center Saliou-Binet Telly responded with a dunk, but George Mason scored five straight on Holdan's free throw, Evans's put-back and Herring's dunk for a 12-point lead.

However, American drew to 62-55 with 3:44 left, and had a great chance to get closer. Guard Derek Adams stole the ball from Price at midcourt but missed a breakaway layup and Telly's tip also missed.

Evans grabbed the rebound and passed to Price, who was fouled. Price hit a free throw, Herring made two free throws, and Doctor fouled out with 2:23 left.

The Eagles drew to 73-68 with 16.8 seconds left, and after Price's free throws, Hearns made a three-pointer to make it 75-71 with 11.2 seconds left. But Dorsett hit a free throw, and Hearns missed a three-point attempt.

"We didn't match their intensity at the start of the game, and we fell into a hole," American Coach Art Perry said. "But to our kids' credit, we fought back to the point where we were able to make it a game, at least in the end."