Howard, overcoming a dreadful start with a 16-1 burst that ended the first half, defeated Maryland-Eastern Shore, 63-57, in the opening game of the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference basketball tournament today at Winston-Salem Coliseum.

The Bison (16-10), who have won this tournament the last two seasons, were in trouble when they missed their first eight shots and trailed, 14-2. But Coach A.B. Williamson kept his players calm and they closed within 22-12. Then 6-foot-9 all-conference forward James Ratiff scored eight straight points, Howard moved to a 28-23 halftime lead and never trailed again.

The only point Eastern Shore (6-20) got in the last eight minutes of the first half came on a free throw by Glenn Winbush.

Ratiff finished with 22 points and nine rebounds. Teammate Bernard Perry had 18 points; Marlowe Barkley led Eastern Shore with 14.

The victory put Howard into Saturday's 6 p.m. semifinal against Bethune-Cookman, which today beat South Carolina State, 54-53, on Robert Wallace's two free throws with nine seconds left. In a third first-round game, Florida A & M defeated Delaware State, 47-42, and will play regular-season champion North Carolina A & T in Saturday's 8 p.m. semifinal.

The championship game will begin Sunday at 4, with the winner getting an automatic NCAA tournament berth.

The Bison had all they could handle against Eastern Shore, a team they had beaten twice this season, although by a total of only three points.

The Hawks don't have a starter taller than 6-6 and they were going up against the biggest front line in the conference in Ratiff, 6-11 James Terry and 6-8 Lawrence Norfleet. Nevertheless, the Hawks outrebounded the Bison, 40-29, with 6-4 sophomore forward Allen Davenport getting 17. He also had 12 points.

"They may not be big, but they're physical," said Ratiff. "We were a little tight at the beginning, but we didn't get flustered when we fell behind."

Williamson said his players might have been "too pumped up. We talked just before the game about getting off to a fast start, setting the tempo and not letting Eastern Shore get in the game. But we came out tight. We were forcing shots and we were hesitant."

With that decisive height advantage, Howard opened in a 2-1-2 zone defense, hoping to force the Hawks to shoot from the outside. But although they were smaller, the Hawks were quick enough to penetrate the zone.

Davenport's offensive rebound and basket was followed by Winbush's offensive rebound and basket and Gerald Best's offensive rebound and basket, and the Hawks had an 8-0 lead five minutes into the game.

Howard finally scored on Perry's 18-footer, but Eastern Shore got the next six points.

That's when Howard came out of its zone, applied defensive pressure and started looking almost exclusively to Ratiff on offense.

His eight straight points, four on 17-foot jump shots, cut a 22-12 Eastern Shore lead to 22-20 with 4:20 left in the half. Perry tied the score on a 20-footer 20 seconds later, Rodney Wright scored four points in a row and Terry added a basket to close out the run.