Howard Coach A.B. Williamson has traveled this route before -- now four times, to be exact. But tonight's 71-69 loss to North Carolina A&T in the final of the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference, with an NCAA tournament berth at stake, was an especially hard pill to swallow.

With 5:44 left, Howard had a seven-point lead, the ball and the momentum before 6,081 in the Palestra.

"It's the same old song, every year," Williamson said. "I guess they have to be the better team, since they beat us twice during the regular season and today."

If the Aggies (19-9) were the better team, it was only by a slight margin and only because they had the two best guards in the conference both on their game tonight.

Eric Boyd, the tournament MVP and player of the year in the MEAC, shot brilliantly throughout against the Bison, but his two most important moments did not involve his rainbow jumper.

With the game tied at 69, Boyd found back-court mate Jimmy Brown alone underneath, where he was fouled by Mike Hampton with 12 seconds left. Brown made the first but erred on his second free throw and Howard's Robert Jones cleared the rebound -- only to be stripped from behind by Boyd, who then was fouled intentionally. He made the first but was short on the second.

Howard rebounded and called time out with five seconds left. George Hamilton worked free for a jump shot from the top of the key but it bounded off the rim and time expired as players from both teams were scrambling for the rebound.

"When he (Jones) got the rebound, he was looking downcourt and I knew he didn't see me, so I just stole it," Boyd said. "Sure it was a gamble . . . but it worked."

That the Bison (16-12) had a chance to tie is indicative of the huge lead swings that marked the second half.

Ahead, 33-29, at the half, thanks largely to Boyd's deadly outside shot (11 first-half points, 27 for the game), the Aggies began to appear tentative midway through the second half. Boyd's pull-up jumper -- his first basket from closer than 20 feet -- gave North Carolina A&T a 48-43 lead.

But freshman point guard Thomas Griffis, the third in A&T's three-guard offense, began to make freshman mistakes.

First, he walked. Then, he fouled Fred Hill, who made one free throw. After Griffis missed an open 15-footer, Howard's Robert McIlwaine scored on a follow shot. Trapped in the back court, Griffis double dribbled; Hill made a jumper tying the game at 48.

The Bison continued to force hurried shots by North Carolina A&T and Boyd turned human, missing two jumpers in the next five minutes as the Bison went ahead, 60-53.

Here, experience took over. Rather than slowing the tempo, Howard, which starts no seniors, rushed and lost its poise.

Hill missed the front end of a one and one and Boyd followed with a 22-footer. Hill, who led Howard with 19 points, missed from 15 feet, and McIlwaine fouled out on the rebound. Claude Williams made both free throws.

Robert Jones scored from the inside to put Howard up, 62-57, but the Aggies scored 12 of the next 13 points to take a 69-63 lead.

Hamilton hit a short jumper then, with Jeff Williams, forced Griffis into a five-second violation. Hamilton scored again, this time from deep in the right corner. Mike Jones' foul line jumper pulled the Bison even at 69.