Howard University lost its composure for the final five minutes of the first half last night and permitted a 17-2 splurge that set up a 72-61 decision for Illinois State before 2,700 at Burr Gymnasium.

"They are a top-20 team. They showed great patience when they were behind and worked the ball until they got the shot they wanted," said Bison Coach A. B. Williamson.

"For 15 minutes, we were smooth. But the last five, a few things went against us and we hung our heads a bit. We missed a few shots and they took advantage of it."

Howard, getting fine outside shooting from Larry Spriggs and James Ratiff, battled the Redbirds (14-4) on even terms the first few minutes. Ratiff's 16-footer, followed by a pair of free throws, gave the Bison a 23-20 lead 5:01 before intermission.

Suddenly, the game turned. The Redbirds, one of the best defensive teams in the nation (they came in allowing 58.8 points per game) tightened and began forcing the Bison into one mistake after another.

Anthony Jones started the ISU surge with a driving layup. Del Yarbrough supplied six of his team's next eight points around the Bison's only advance, a pair of free throws by Rodney Wright. While the Bison ((1-6) were misfiring on their final six shots of the first half and committing five of their 21 turnovers, four various ISU players scored to send the visitors roaring to a 37-25 lead.

"We missed shots we won't miss again this year," Williamson lamented.

"That was the key for us. We got the opportunity to get a run and take control," said ISU Coach Bob Donewald. "We stayed with our sagging man to man but we made it tough to get the ball inside. Spriggs hurt us early and we wanted to cut off the inside lanes."

Howard, which connected on a dismal nine for 26 shots in the first half, tried desperately to make up the deficit in the second. Early in the period, Howard had successive baskets from Nate Speight and Ratiff to creep within nine points, 51-42.

"When you're coming back, you have to do everything right," said Williamson. "If we had made one or two more passes and took a better shot in some cases, it might have made a difference."

Instead, Ron Jones found a home in the deep corner and banged in three straight Redbird jumpers to stop that rally.

But the Bison, playing excellent defense, yielded, only a layup by Yarbrough and a handful of free throws over a 5 1/2-minute span to get close again.

During Howard's final drive, Spriggs, who had 16 points and 11 rebounds, and Illinois State's Rick Lamb engaged in a brief scuffle on the floor after both went after a loose ball. Both were ejected from the game.

Six points by Bernard Perry and a three-point play by Speight narrowed the ISU advantage to 64-57 with 2:37 on the clock.

"Defense is our thing," said Yarbrough. "We were in some foul troublee at that point, but we have some depth so we weren't worried. We don't depend on one man."

Just when it appeared the Bison might have enough left to make the game closer, the turnovers, and the missed shots returned. And after each Bison mistake, the poised Redbirds scored. Yarbrough sank a pair of free throws and, after ISU froze the ball 44 seconds, McKay Smith sneaked inside for a layup and a 58-57 advantage with 40 seconds to go.

"In the second half, both teams played about even," Donewald commented. "When we got in the tough situations near the end, our kids hung in."

Howard won the battle of the boards, 43-32, but shot only 39 percent (23 to 59). Ratiff hit only four of 11 and had a subpar 13 points. Wright made one field goal in 10 tries.

ISU had four players in double figures. Ron Jones, a 6-foot-5 guard with amazing spring, grabbed 10 rebounds to go with his team-high 16 points. Yarbrough had 15 points, 7-foot center Joe Galvin 14 and former W. T. Woodson star Dave Nussbaumer 10.