Up-again, down-again Howard played well enough in spurts tonight to overcome several mental lapses and horrendous clutch free-throw shooting in running past North Carolina Central, 73-64, in the opening round of the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference basketball tournament.

A fired-up front court duo of senior center Dorian Dent and sophomore forward Larry Spriggs controlled play inside. Meanwhile, Howard's rediscovered fast break in the second half cemented the lead the Bison built with 69.6 percent shooting in the first half.

Soaring far above the Eagle big men, Dent grabbed a career-high 20 rebounds, including 15 in the second half. Spriggs scored a game-high 25 points, including a variety of spectacular slam dunks and baskets on accurate lobs from substitute guard Gerald Gaskins.

The Bison, who face Delaware State in Friday's 7 p.m. semifinal, kept their tournament opening-round record perfect (8-0). The other semifinal matches defending champ North Carolina A&T, which received a firstround bye, and Morgan State.

Morgan State nipped Maryland-Eastern Shore, 73-70, and Delaware State beat South Carolina State, 78-73, in other opening round games.

Spriggs had a pair of assists, a dunk and an offensive rebound basket and Gaskins hit a pair of short jumpers to give the Bison (15-11) a reprieve after they watched a 14-point lead dissolve to five with 4 1/2 minutes left.

Howard four times missed the front end of bonus free throws in the final 11 minutes and made only 10 of 19 foul shots in the final half.

"We had some lapses," Dent said. "They took advantage of them to come back. They're a good jump shooting team. But we kept getting the ball inside on offense when we needed the points."

Howard ran hot and cold in the early going.

With guards Moe Young and Louis Wilson setting up high percentage shots with crisp passing, Howard overcame an early four-point deficit and reeled off a seven-point run to climb to an 18-10 lead.

Young hit a three-point play and assisted Spriggs for the next Bison basket. Then Wilson banged home a 22-footer. In that span, Dent, Carlton Richardson and Spriggs were taking turns cleaning the defensive boards.

With the Bison leading, 26-16, the next three minutes typified Howard's occasional poor play in the half.

On consecutive possessions, substitute guard Andre Byrd was cited for traveling, the Bison picked up a threesecond violation, Richardson missed badly on a forced 20-footer and Byrd was caught walking again.

Meanwhile, Audwin Saunders, formerly of Washington's Spingarn High School, popped in three straight jumpers to key a 10-point Eagle spurt that tied the score at 26.

Howard then recovered minutes later to tally the last seven points of the half. Dent sank a 12-footer, Spriggs hit three straight free throws and scored on a marvelous crosscourt lob from Young. When the smoke cleared, the Bison held a 37-28 lead.

Young and Saunders were ejected for fighting with 4:21 elapsed in the second half. Gaskings, an oft-forgotten senior guard, replaced him and got the Bison running.

Howard could do little wrong. On one fast break, Wilson found no opening as he was driving for a fast-break layup. Spotting Spriggs trailing, Wilson bounced the ball hard off the backboard; Spriggs leaped to tip in the rebound and Howard led at that point, 50-36.