When the Howard Bison are at their best, they play basketball in a hurry. They don't lke being interrupted by such things as timeouts, free throws and, least of all, patterned offenses. Let the closest man hit the boards, throw the outlet pass, and one of the other four will dunk the ball, lay it up or pull up for the jump shot. Simple.

"If we're at our best, two passes downcourt -- no more -- and we should have the basket," said Bison forward james Ratiff, after Howard won its second straight home game last night, 84-69, over Southwestern Athletic Conference opponent Mississippi Valley State before 2,100 at Burr Gymnasium.

The Bison were at their best for about three-fourths of the 40-minute sprintathon, rarely ever needing to take longer than a 10-foot shot. Howard slammed eight dunks -- the players call themselves "The Dunk Patrol" -- and about 20 layups, few conventionally shot, in making 35 of 70 shots.

As will be the case most of the season, Howard's forwards did the scoring, rebounding, passing and stuffing. Larry Spriggs, the only senior, scored 20 points, had 17 rebounds and six assists. Ratiff, the team's leading scorer, had 19 points, eight rebounds and five assists. Guard Bernard Perry, the only bona fide outside shooter, sank nine of 13 for 18 points.

Tony Reed was the high scorer for the delta Devils (4-3) with 23 points and back court mate Ellis Henry added 14. They also were credited with their team's only two assists, for Mississippi Valley spent the evening putting up some incredibly long, low-percentage and off-balance shots.

After being tied, 12-12, Howard streaked to a 26-16 lead and built a 40-26 halftime margin. The Bison played sloppily for the first eight minutes of the second half and watched their lead shrink to three, 47-44.

"We had about a four- or five-minute lapse," said Ratiff, "because, with the big lead, we stopped the zone press on defense. And when we stop running on defense, we stop running, period."

When the Bison stop running, they're lost.

"We usually need a steal or dunk or something big to start us running again," Ratiff added. They got both from Spriggs, who stole an attempted outlet pass, stuffed one against Delta Devil center Bryant Johnson and made the free throw after being fouled. Howard scored 10 straight points and cruised to victory after that.

"We never play that great in December," said Bison Coach A.B. Williamson. "Right now, I just want the team to improve in some aspect each game. Tonight we passed well for most of the game. The guys were looking for each other very well. We began rebounding well at about the 12-minute mark of the second half."