Howard University regrouped just in time in the final minutes last night at Burr Gymnasium to turn back the determined challenge of its neighborhood rival, University of the District of Columbia, 55-50, in the first meeting between the two teams.

The Bison (4-1), perhaps still a bit shell-shocked from their 47-point loss to Alcorn State Monday night, got all they bargained for from their tiny adversaries. UDC (2-3) combined a patient offense, a quick-moving, tight zone defense and the outside shooting of former Cardozo All-Met guard Mike (Hawkeye) Daniels (20 points) to stay in the game. Daniels threw in the five of his eight field goals in the first 20 minutes to spark the Firebirds to a surprising, 30-27, halftime lead.

Howard, showing little patience, committed several silly fouls and allowed the backcourt of Daniels and Greg Carson to get free for unmolested 12-15 footers.

"Maybe, we were a little cocky in the beginning," said Bison point guard Rodney Wright, who had the chore of quieting the elusive Daniels. "Hawkeye had a good game. He made those two quick moves on and got me in foul trouble early. I had to tighten up on him the second half. the D.C. players on both teams felt this game was important. If UDC had beat us, we (D.C. players) wouldn't have been able to walk the streets."

Both teems played the second half at a near walk, UDC because it was a necessity, Howard because it felt it should.

"It took us a little while to get back together," said Howard Coach A. B. Williamson. "Remember, we got beat by 47 on our court last game. We made some fouls in the first half to put them in the one-to-one. We were towering over them so there was no need to rush our shots. We got a bit more patient the second half."

Howard's patience slowly began to pay off. James Ratiff, who has almost single-handedly carried the Bison so far, drew enough attention the second half (after scoring 13 in the first half) from the collapsing Firebird zone to open up things for his teammates.

Bernard Perry, Nat Speight and Lawrence Norfleet started hitting from the perimeters and the tide began to turn.

Back-to-back baskets by Ratiff, who finished with 19 points and 17 rebounds, and Perry (11) pushed the Bison out to its biggest lead to that point, 43-40, with 11 minutes left.

"I was surprised they played us so slow," said Daniels. "I thought they would come out running and gunning at us. It think the crowd hyped them up."

Daniels worked his way free from his shadow, Wright, and canned a 16 -- footer and Carson fired in a long jumper to pull the visitors to within a point, 45-44, with 5:10 left.

It was as close as UDC would get. Norfleet busted one from the top of the key and Perry sank a one-hander from his favorite spot in the corner to give Howard breathing room again, 49-44, with 3:20 remaining.

"We ran out of gas," said UDC Coach Wil Jones. "We executed perfectly. We wanted them to come out and play us man to man. They did. We weren't holding the ball, we were waiting for a good shot."

Howard made sure the suddenly desperate Firebirds didn't get a good shot in the final minutes. The Bison's man-to-man defense forced the visitors to try several long shots and none fell. UDC's Steve Smith was called for goaltending on a layup by Louis Wilson with 32 seconds left and the Bison led, 53-48.

But it wasn't over yet. Daniels raced down and hit a running 15-footer 11 seconds later to cut the deficit to 53-50.

Ratiff had a chance to pad the lead for Howard at the line, but he missed the front end of a one and one with eight seconds to play. UDC's tallest player, 6-foot-7 Mike Britt, grabbed the rebound but tripped and lost the ball. He got up just in time to watch Ratiff throw down a vicious dunk to close out the scoring and secure the victory.

"We'll take the win. Yes, I'm pleased with it. Whether we won by a point or 50," said Williamson, responding to the crowd boos in the final minutes. "This goes in the bank as a win. Their whole year is geared to beating us, our year is geared to beating everyone."

Howard played rather tentatively in the first half. Only Ratiff could solve UDC's zone, hitting seven of 11 shots over it to keep the Bison close.

UDC, meanwhile, got scoring from six different players to lead most of the first half. Britt, the smoothest player on the court, was called for three fouls in the first half and UDC had to depend on Daniels.

Britt stayed out of foul trouble the second half but he was not match for the 6-8 Ratiff, 6-8 Norfleet and 6-7 Larry Spriggs. Howard owned the boards.

"We took too many outside shots in the first half," said Ratiff. "They gave us the 12-footer and collapsed inside. Berry (Perry) took a couple of shots the second half and that helped us."