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  For Wizards, a Grand Opening, Indeed

By Ric Bucher
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, December 3, 1997; Page B1

The Washington Wizards christened their new home with their best win of the season, a 95-78 victory over the Seattle SuperSonics in front of an appreciative sell-out crowd of 20,674. Neither team had set foot inside MCI Center before yesterday, but the Wizards wasted no time in making it theirs.

The Wizards, who were 0-5 this season at US Airways Arena, improved to 6-11, the victory enhanced by the fact that the Sonics (13-4) are far and away the best of the six teams they have defeated.

This is the second time this franchise has opened a building by beating the Sonics, who lost, 98-96, on Dec. 2, 1973, in Capital Centre's debut.

"Perfect culmination to a great day," said Wizards Coach Bernie Bickerstaff. "Now we have to sustain it. It's history and we have to keep it in perspective, but I was real happy we could get this done."

Bickerstaff would have been hard-pressed to find parts of his team that did not mesh. All five starters contributed double-figure scoring, and sixth man Tracy Murray matched Juwan Howard for top honors with 18 points. The front line of Howard, Chris Webber and Terry Davis had 10 rebounds apiece, helping give the Wizards a 46-35 advantage. The Wizards even shot 78.4 percent from the free throw line, a weak point of late.

"Any time you see change it is a chance to start anew," said Webber. "Any incentive to help you play better is good."

The Sonics came into the game with a seven-game winning streak but never threatened in the second half, despite a game-high 22 points on 10-of-13 shooting by center Vin Baker. They were done in by 21 turnovers, most of them forced by the Wizards' trapping defense. And rather than wilt under the pressure of the Sonics' trap, the Wizards hung tough, never letting Seattle get closer than 11 in the final period. Seattle Coach George Karl conceded, putting in his reserves with 2 minutes 37 seconds left and the Wizards leading 92-77.

"We got outworked tonight in the paint, on the boards and defensively," Karl said. "My biggest disappointment is that we didn't put enough work out there to win."

Holding everything together was point guard Rod Strickland, who drove for a couple of layups just before the 24-second shot clock expired. He finished with 13 points, 9 assists and 7 rebounds, outdoing his more heralded counterpart, Gary Payton, who finished with nine points on 4-of-15 shooting, seven assists and five rebounds.

"We both had tough nights; no one did anything spectacular," Strickland said. "But anytime you win the game, you win the battle."

Davis, then, could rightfully claim a victory over Baker. Although he couldn't do much to stop Baker from scoring, he made him earn every basket and came up with several steals and tipped passes to keep Baker from taking over. Davis's work around the basket in the opening minutes also covered a shaky jump-shooting start by his teammates, who missed 7 of their first 8 jumpers. In the first period, Davis had three tip-ins and a pair of layups for 10 of his 14 points. He'll also go down in history as having scored the first basket in MCI Center history, a tip-in 41 seconds into the game.

"I've been a little disappointed in myself," said Davis, who received several warm rounds of applause from the crowd. "I just wanted to come out and bust my butt."

Whether it was the larger capacity but more intimate confines of the new arena or a more responsive crowd, the energy from the stands was better than anything the Wizards experienced in their five games this season at US Airways Arena.

When the Wizards opened their first double-digit lead with a 12-2 burst at the start of the second quarter and the Sonics called a timeout, several sections of the crowd gave the Wizards a standing ovation as they went to the bench. Best of all was the rowdy gang in Section 408, the upper-deck end zone nearest the Wizards' bench. They started several waves that, although they didn't last long, provided more noise than anything heard previously this season.

"It was a positive atmosphere and that's what we need," Murray said. "It just felt like there was a lot of energy."

Nor did the team hear anything derisive. "I'd rather have that subtle quiet than the USAir booing," Strickland said.

But then again, the Wizards didn't give the crowd much reason to boo. The offense sputtered several times, most noticeably near the end of the second quarter, but it did not die thanks to key baskets by Ledell Eackles, signed Friday to provide offense off the bench, and Calbert Cheaney before the period ended.

"We were on an adrenaline high and then it went down at the end of the second quarter," Bickerstaff said. "But we had some guys step up and we were consistently able to give guys a blow here and there. You can legitimately call it home."

© Copyright 1997 The Washington Post Company

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