Bernard Perry and Rodney Wright made two big defensive plays in the final 10 seconds today to preserve a 50-49 victory over Bethune-Cookman and move Howard into the title game of the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference tournament.
Perry also scored the game-winning, and last, points on a 22-foot jump shot with 2:29 left.
Howard will go for its third straight MEAC championship and its second straight NCAA tournament spot Sunday at 4 against North Carolina A&T, which beat Florida A&M, 47-45, in tonight's second semifinal.
Against Bethune-Cookman, Howard never led by more than two points and trailed by six with eight minutes to play.
The Wildcats, who with no player taller than 6 feet 6 depend on speed and ball-handling to win games, held the ball after Perry's basket. As they waited for one last shot, they tried to lure Howard into a defensive mistake. The Bison never bit. With 17 seconds left, Bethune-Cookman called a timeout. Then Maurice Malcolm tried to force a pass in to Jarvis Smith and Perry intercepted it with seven seconds to play.
Perry said he thought only a couple seconds remained, so he heaved the ball down court. Bethune-Cookman's Kenny Boynton was waiting, however, and intercepted it with four seconds left. His pass to Robert Wallace was deflected by Wright to James Ratiff and the Howard forward held onto the ball until time ran out.
"I knew they were going to hold the ball because they've done it on everybody they've played this year when they've gotten in that situation," said Howard Coach A.B. Williamson. "They never had a chance to do it on us before tonight because we always jumped on them early."
Howard had beaten Bethune-Cookman by 16 and 18 points in the regular season.
"Our problem today was that we just didn't rebound the ball," said Williamson, whose team was outrebounded, 25-23. "But I guarantee we're going to win tomorrow. I don't care who we play. We've come too far and worked too hard not to."
Back-to-back baskets by Wallace, who had 19 points, gave Bethune-Cookman a 47-41 advantage with eight minutes left, but Howard scored seven straight points to take a 48-47 lead with 5:20 to go.
Gino Warner started the rally with a tap-in. After a Bethune-Cookman turnover, James Terry scored off an offensive rebound. On Bethune-Cookman's next possession, Wallace was caught elbowing Warner for a two-shot, intentional foul. Warner made only the second free throw, but stole the inbounds pass and fed Terry for a dunk and the 48-47 lead.
After Smith missed a shot for the Wildcats, the Bison stalled, but Perry's pass was picked off by Smith, who got a dunk on the breakaway.
Smith had another breakaway with three minutes left, but missed the layup. Thirty seconds later, Perry made his game-winning jumper.
Perry finished with 16 points, Ratiff 14 and 11 rebounds. Howard made only 39 percent of its shots.
Bethune-Cookman Coach Cy McClairen had used a delay in the final minutes of the Wildcats' 54-53 upset of South Carolina State in Friday's first round of the tournament. That time, Wallace was fouled and made two winning free throws.
"That strategy works for us most of the time," said McClairen. "I like to be in that situation because I can control my own fate that way. We did things right until the very end and then we just didn't throw the ball to the right person. And then when we got the ball back we didn't have any timeouts."