The postgame scene could have been viewed as either slightly premature or the last chance for a Howard celebration. Regardless, there was an unabashed outpouring of joy on the floor of the Coliseum here today.
What transformed the Bison players and fans into a swarming mass of midcourt madness was a 75-73 victory over Florida A&M in the semifinals of the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference tournament.
Sunday, Howard, now 16-11, will play North Carolina A&T (21-6) at 1 o'clock for the conference championship and an automatic NCAA tournament berth. The Aggies edged Bethune-Cookman, 54-51, in today's other semifinal.
Whenever the Bison and Rattlers get together, it is more than a game. The teams share an extreme dislike for each other that elevates the competition to rafter level. It was no different this time.
Howard wasn't safe until Darryl Spence's shot from the corner with one second left sailed harmlessly over the basket. Spence was supposed to take the last shot, but not that way. Howard was up by two when each team called time with 24 seconds left. The Bison knew what Florida A&M, also now 16-11, was up to. They put 6-foot-9 James Ratiff on the 6-5 Spence. Ratiff smothered him.
As the seconds ticked off, Howard's Bernard Perry stole a pass, but lost it back to Spence. No time for the Rattlers to think now. Anthony Knighton shot from the baseline. Larry Spriggs blocked it out of bounds. Knighton later said he was fouled. "Clean block. Clean block," said Spriggs.
There was just a second left when FAMU inbounded. Spence shot and missed.
Compared with their horrendous showing Saturday against Delaware State, when the players admittedly were too keyed up, the Bison were cool, but not frostbitten, against the Rattlers.
"There was no need to say anything to our guys," Bison Coach A. B. Williamson said. "They were fired up. They sang and clapped on the bus. The only question was: would they be too high?"
They weren't. "I think we calmed down, maybe a little too much," said Spriggs, who had a typical performance -- 17 points, eight rebounds. "We kept 'em in the game too long before we blew 'em out."
Blew 'em out?
After erasing a 38-34 halftime deficit, Howard tied the game for the final time at 52, with 11:30 to play, then built a nine-point lead in less than three minutes. But that eroded as the Rattlers pulled within two with a minute left.
The key moment in the Howard surge was when Ratiff followed a missed shot and was fouled. Rattler Coach Josh Giles screamed something naughty, earning a two-shot technical foul. Ratiff made his free throw, Rodney Wright made the technicals, Howard got the ball and a subsequent basket by Lawrence Norfleet meant a 61-52 lead with 8:50 left.
Ratiff, recovering from a five-for-22 shooting performance against Delaware State, was 10 for 19 from the field for 21 points. He also had five assists. James Terry again played well, although hampered by foul trouble, shooting four or five and grabbing seven rebounds in 24 minutes.
The other big news was the play of guard Bernard Perry, who scored 14 points from outside and led the team with six assists.
"I told Perry and Ratiff to get to within 15 feet of the basket and if you get the shot, shoot it," Williamson said. "I told them not to play tentatively anymore. They were shooting straight-up shots and, fortunately, they hit the bottom of the basket.
FAMU was hurt when its top scorer, Pete Taylor, fouled out with 3:55 left. Although the Rattlers were whistled for just three more fouls than the Bison, FAMU Coach Josh Giles wouldn't discuss the game, claiming he was so upset at the officiating he might say something foolish.
Paul Grady and Michael Townsend had 18 points for the Rattlers, who shot 50 percent and committed just 10 turnovers. Howard also cleaned up its game, turning the ball over 13 times, a low total for the Bison.