With four minutes left and his team nursing a three-point lead, Howard University Coach A.B. Williamson jumped off the bench and held up four fingers. The Bison immediately went into their version of the four-corner offense, but the results were disastrous.

Illinois State turned some sloppy play at Howard into several quick baskets and the game was over. The Bison lost that recent contest, 61-52, and the crowd howled and hooted at Williamson. The disappointed fans left criticizing Williamson for not allowing his team to run and shoot.

Williamson, now in his fifth season at Howard, is not bothered by the criticism. In fact, he laughs at it.

"People will criticize anything," said Williamson, grinning. "I'm a coach and I can't worry about the fan likes and dislikes. A coach knows what his team can and cannot do.

"All the fans want to see you run up and down and shoot jumpers from all over the court," Williamson said. "Some don't care if you lose, as long as the game is exciting and the score is high. I only use the spread -- and it's a spread-to-score offense -- because other teams have used it against us to stop our running game. I would much rather run."

When Howard shifts into second gear, it can be devastating. The Bison are quick, a good shooting team and have steadily improved defensively.

Following last weekend's impressive 66-62 with over Mid-Eastern Athletic conference archrival North Carolina A&T, and a revenge victory over North Carolina-Willmington, 59-53, the Bison are 15-7, going into Saturday's final home game against A&T.

In both games, Howard ensured victory by using delay tactics in the waning minutes.

"You use the offense to score layups or draw fouls," said Williamson "The ball can't be stolen from you if you execute. And when you're fouled, you have to make the free throws." While the Bison may not be breaking any scoring records or pleasing fans who enjoy shoot-and-chase basketball, they are winning games.

The Bison like to think they have the best pair of do-it-all forwards in the country in 6-foot-8 sophomore James Ratiff and 6-7 junior Larry Spriggs. Both run extremely well, can hit the outside shot and are good rebounders and shot blockers. Ratiff, an all-met at Eastern High School under Williamson and a transfer from Tennessee, is averaging 19.4 points and 9.4 rebounds. Spriggs, an intimidating type, is averaging 13.7 points and 6.6 rebounds per contest.

Ratiff's 5-10 high school teammate and a transfer from Oral Roberts, Rodney Wright, runs the show as the point guard. The ballhandler is blessed with quick hands and slick moves to the basket, attributes that make him an ideal player to operate the spread offense.

The No. 2 guard, or designated shooter, is 6-5 freshman Bernard Perry. But the much-sought after Smyrna, Ga., native and master of the 18-footer is leery of shooting.

"We want him to shoot," said Ratiff who is so impressed with Perry's fluid motion, he has taken to passing the ball for the first time in his career. "When he hits, we are a better team without question."

Perry, who averages just under nine shots and 10.0 points per contest, said he feels "greedy when he shoots too much."

"I guess I should be shooting more and I probably will," said Perry. "I think the most shots I took this year is 12 (actually 14). I only averaged 13 shots in high school. When the coach told me to shoot more, I wasn't used to that."

James Terry, a 6-11 sophomore out of Cleveland, mans the center spot. His play has been spotty most of the year (6.1 points and 5.7 rebounds) and when the game speeds up, Williamson benches Terry and uses a third guard, speedy senior Nate Speight.

"Our rebounding has not been as good as I would like,' said Williamson. "That's why we can't run as much as I want to. You have to get the rebounds to run. Oh, we have weaknesses, sure. But people forget my kids are young and just getting to know one another. The only player on this team to see a lot of playing time last year was Spriggs."

For the first time in a while, the Bison boast some depth. After Speight, Williamson calls on 6-8 rebounder Lawrence Norfleet, wing man Moe Young and guards Jeff Beard and Louis Wilson. All have played significant roles in producing at least one Howard win this year.

The Bison should easily finish atop the MEAC (there is no regular season champion this year) to sew up the No. 1 seeding for the tournament Feb. 29-March 3.

Breaking up victories over Colgate, Towson State and Morgan State was a loss to struggling George Mason, 68-67, in overtime.

"That was the hardest one to take said Williamson. "Realistically, if we had a second chance to play some of those teams that beat us, we could turn our record around to about 19-3. We lost two games on long shots at the buzzer. But then you always lose a couple of games you shouldn't."

Howard is shooting 51 percent from the floor, and the Bisons often score on dunks by the "dunk patrol" of Terry, Ratiff and Spriggs. The Bison are shooting 61 percent from the free throw line and averaging 38 rebounds per game, seven more than their opponents.

Howard is scoring at a 70.3 clip but, because of early defensive lapses, is surrending 67.2 points per outing. However, in their last five games, only George Mason has scored that many points.

The most alarming figure on the Bison statistical picture is the number of turnovers. The Bison have thrown the ball away 349 times, an average of 15 times a game.

Ratiff, Spriggs and Wright have accounted for 221 of those turnovers, many coming off the fast break or a fast-paced offense.

On Williamson's immediate list of priorities is a 20-victory season, the MEAC tournament championship and, hopefully, an NIT bid.

In the meantime, he would like the Bison rooters to be a bit more patient.

"We'll win for them if they wait," he said.