Every time the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference game against Florida A&M seemed on the verge of breaking into a full-scale fracas last night. Howard point guard Rodney Wright told his emotional teammates to calm down and stick to basketball.
Wright had about the only cool head on either team and, fortunately for Howard, his temperament prevailed over the last five minutes. This allowed the Bison to scratch their way to a 76-64 rematch victory over their bitter conference rival. They also remained unbeaten (8-0) in Burr Gymnasium this season.
Wright -- one of four Howard players to score in double figures -- made six of eight shots, scored 17 points and made eight assists. Wright's statistics may have been overshadowed by teammate James Ratiff's 23 points and quivering slam dunks. But Wright's 40-minute effort was not lost on his coach, A. B. Williamson, whose team won its second straight MEAC game in as many nights. The win boosted Howard (11-8, 5-3) into second place, one game behind victorious North Carolina A&T. The Bison have one conference road game left.
"Rodney played exceptionally," Williamson said. "He ran the whole show, controlled the tempo and calmed everybody down when it was necessary."
His teammates needed calming several times, because memories of a 20-point loss to these same Rattlers two weeks ago in Tallahassee, Fla., turned the rematch ugly because of the intensity in which it was played.
This contest began at the same feverish pitch, as at least 1,000 people without tickets connived to get inside to see one of the MEAC's best matchups.
"They beat us by 20 down there and talked a lot of stuff," Williamson said. "But we realize February is here, and how important these back-to-back home conference games were (Howard defeated Bethune-Cookman Friday)."
Differences from that earlier contest included the intimidating support of the Bison fans, the availability of forward Larry Spriggs and Howard having a decisive edge from the free-throw line.
The Bison, while shooting the same 28 for 56 from the floor as FAMU, sank 20 of 31 free throws. The Rattlers (13-7, 4-3) made only eight of 13. FAMU was whistled for 25 fouls, Howard only 11.
Spriggs made seven of 12 shots in scoring 18 points, had nine rebounds and gave some thoroughly intimidating defensive play close to the basket. "We needed the enforcer down there (Spriggs missed the previous game with an injured back) and you see the difference he made tonight," Williamson said.
But still, it was Wright who orchestrated the free-form offense, ran the fast break to perfection, and fed Ratiff (who also blocked three shots) for some stunning slam dunks, including two in a row near the end of the half that put howard ahead for good and sparked the Bison to a 35-31 halftime lead.
Howard held an eight-point lead in the first half and a 10-point margin midway through the second, but no lead is comfortable for the Bison. And last night, with players throwing balls at each other, elbows being thrown with vigor on rebounds and players having to be separated every few minutes, the Bison found it easy to get into a helter-skelter style that the strong-rebounding Rattlers feed off.
FAMU forward Pete Taylor, who led the Rattlers with 16 points and had to be physically restrained from going after a Bison player after fouling out, scored eight points consecutively in the second half. It cut Howard's lead to 49-47. But Ratiff and Wright made seven of nine free throws down the stretch and Howard held on for victory.