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  •   Webber, Wizards Get Final Word in OT

    By Ric Bucher
    Washington Post Staff Writer
    Monday, March 23, 1998; Page D1

    EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J., March 22 — For most of this afternoon, forward Chris Webber couldn't hit a shot, sink a free throw or get a call from the officials, but for one important instant he got all three and that propelled the Washington Wizards to a 102-100 overtime win over the New Jersey Nets.

    After blowing an 18-point third-quarter lead to finish tied at 90 at the end of regulation, the Wizards appeared to be fading under a withering offensive assault by rookie Keith Van Horn, who scored six of his game-high 29 points in overtime, the last of which came on a free throw with 31.8 seconds left to give the Nets a 98-96 lead.

    But Webber seized the momentum for the Wizards, driving on center Rony Seikaly from the top of the key and scoring on a running layup as Seikaly fouled him with 27.6 seconds left. Webber, who had missed five of his first eight free throws, hit the bonus free throw to put the Wizards ahead for good, 99-98. Reserve point guard Chris Whitney made a pair of free throws to increase the lead to three after a traveling violation by Van Horn, but Kerry Kittles matched them four seconds later to cut the difference to one again.

    Point guard Rod Strickland then closed the scoring by making the second of two free throws with 6.5 seconds left.

    "I think we put [the official] in a position where it would've been hard not to make a call," Webber said of his play. "Coach [Bernie Bickerstaff] drew up the play for me to set a back pick for Tracy [Murray] and then pop out for the ball. In the back of my mind, I was looking to drive and kick it out to one of our shooters. But I saw some daylight and took it."

    Webber's earlier struggles didn't worry Bickerstaff.

    "It's what he gets paid to do," Bickerstaff said. "We gave him the ball and he made the play. If you give it to a guy in that situation, you have confidence in him."

    But Webber also illustrated his satisfaction with the victory in a manner that probably won't do much for his public image. After a desperation baseline jumper by Van Horn sailed over the rim at the final buzzer, Webber swaggered down to the New Jersey end of the court and glowered at the fans, making a slicing motion across his throat. It was his way of getting back, he explained later, at fans, who taunted him after the Wizards' recent two-point loss in Philadelphia.

    "I was just having fun with the fans," he said. "I was going back and forth with them all night. Plus, I had some friends up in the stands behind the Nets' basket. It wasn't meant toward the team."

    His gesture could very well represent the significance of the defeat to the Nets (35-34), though, for it clinched the season series for the Wizards, 3-1, which could loom large in the battle for the eighth and final Eastern Conference playoff spot. If the teams finish with identical records, the first tiebreaker is head-to-head results. The Wizards (35-33) are tied with Orlando (35-33), which defeated Golden State today, for the eighth spot.

    "We wanted to get the tiebreaker and now, hopefully, we won't need it," Webber said. "Hopefully, we'll be battling for a different spot."

    The victory, and how it was managed, has other positive implications for the Wizards. It came despite a combined 34 percent shooting from their three stars — Strickland, Juwan Howard and Webber. Calbert Cheaney offset their struggles by scoring 21 points on 10-of-15 shooting, his first plus-20 point effort in the past eight games.

    The win also gives the Wizards some momentum for a five-game trip that now takes them to the West Coast to face four teams certain to be in the postseason.

    "I don't think this team has any fear and sometimes that's to our detriment," Bickerstaff said. "This doesn't mean anything if we don't continue to win. But it's a start and it's a good start."

    Nets Coach John Calipari tried a variety of tricks at the start to throw the Wizards off-balance, putting Kittles, a 6-foot-5 shooting guard, on Strickland and small forward Kendall Gill on center Terry Davis, but that had little to do with New Jersey's 30-25 lead going into the second quarter.

    Credit that, instead, to Van Horn, who had 10 first-quarter points and put both Webber and Juwan Howard in foul trouble. Howard ultimately fouled out with 55 seconds left in overtime and Webber played the final 2 minutes 42 seconds in overtime with five fouls.

    As a result, Bickerstaff was forced to put Murray, one of the team's least-effective defenders, on Van Horn for long stretches of the game, including most of overtime.

    "We didn't have much choice because of the foul trouble and the matchups," Bickerstaff said.

    The Wizards slowed down Van Horn in the second quarter, though, holding him to two points in the period, allowing them to roar back and take a 58-44 halftime lead.

    © Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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