Two steps forward, one step back--way back.

After posting back-to-back victories, the last a rare road triumph, the Washington Wizards were handily defeated, 118-85, by the Charlotte Hornets tonight before 18,542 at Charlotte Coliseum.

Enduring an eight-minute scoring drought, Washington scored just eight second-quarter points and allowed the Hornets to break the game open and make the second half a formality. Washington, which led for most of the first quarter, fell behind by as many as 39, committed 27 turnovers, scored a season-low 32 first-half points and suffered its fourth double-digit road loss of the season.

Other than its 101-93 victory at Philadelphia Wednesday, Washington (4-9) has lost its four other road games by an average margin of 22.7 points. The Wizards play the Atlantic Division-leading Heat in Miami on Saturday night, then travel to New Jersey, where they will face the Nets on Tuesday. New Jersey administered a 25-point whipping to Washington Nov. 7.

"We fell apart," Wizards Coach Gar Heard said about tonight's game. "It's a big letdown to get blown out like we did tonight."

The Wizards hoped they had turned the corner by winning their first road game of the season at Philadelphia. The victory, their third in four games and second in a row, was viewed by some players as a sign that the team finally was jelling.

Washington came unglued instead.

In facing a team with the potential to emerge as one of the Eastern Conference's elite, Washington opened strongly, then withered. Charlotte's reserves--not the starting five that perhaps is among the most talented in the league--buried Washington in the second quarter.

Of the seven Hornets who scored in double figures, four were reserves. The only Charlotte starter to play in the second period was center Elden Campbell (game-high 19 points).

Charlotte's stingy half-court trap caught Washington off guard and spurred the Wizards' second-quarter demise.

"We didn't handle it at all," said Wizards point guard Rod Strickland, who finished with 11 points and 10 assists. "I just think we didn't handle it. . . . We got our [behinds] kicked."

Charlotte Coach Paul Silas said he was able to break out the trap because of the return of athletic swingman Ricky Davis, who played for the first time this season after rehabilitating his right knee after offseason surgery.

"Our defense was unbelievable," said rookie guard Baron Davis, whose team improved to 8-5. "We started trapping a little and made them take jump shots, which worked to our benefit."

As has become increasingly customary, the Wizards took the second quarter off. They scored just eight points in allowing the Hornets' bench to cruise to a 63-32 halftime lead.

As his downtrodden team walked off the court at halftime, Heard looked perplexed, probably because he has seen the Wizards get themselves in this same rut before and not learn from their mistakes. In the past four games, Washington has been outscored 120-57 in the second quarter--an average of 40 to 14.

Washington made four of 22 shots in the period and took two free throws in the first half, missing both.

Players took bad jump shots or took the ball to the basket with so little aggressiveness that their shots were swatted away--or the ball fell gingerly off the rim. On one occasion, the Wizards actually made a nice defensive stop and had a four-on-two fast break. It ended with forward Juwan Howard (10 points) missing a four-foot jump hook.

"We should have definitely played better than that," Strickland said. "That was bad. I just think we didn't handle it. We took the quick shots instead of taking our time. We take quick shots, miss, they're off running and we just kept doing it."

Charlotte outscored the Wizards 34-10 on fast-break points.

The Wizards did not score their first points of the quarter until Austin's 15-foot jump shot with 5 minutes 39 seconds remaining in the half brought Washington to 42-26. Immediately afterward, Austin's man, Brad Miller, got downcourt quickly enough to score on a layup and add a free throw to extend the Hornets' lead to 19.

Rookie guard Richard Hamilton led Washington with 16 points. Guard Mitch Richmond had 10 points off the bench.

Wizards Notes: Although Richmond is playing better and is almost recovered from a sore left knee and strained right hamstring, Heard said Hamilton will continue to start.

"We got a pretty good streak going," Heard said. "Mitch will play a lot more, but I'm going to start Richard and bring Mitch in. We'll take it game by game. I think you'll see a lot more of Mitch.

"You can see every game Mitch is beginning to look like the old Mitch. He's doing a lot of things he couldn't do six, seven games ago. Richard gives us a spark initially, and with Mitch coming in, he can get into the flow of the game and I can get him going a lot longer."

Heard left open the possibility that Richmond could be inserted into the lineup at any time. . . .

Backup point guard Chris Whitney strained his left hip in the fourth quarter. He is day-to-day. . . . Hamilton missed his first free throws of the season tonight. He entered the game having made all 19 attempts, which topped the league in percentage. He finished 2 of 5.

CAPTION: Wizards' Aaron Williams (44) and Hornets' David Wesley (24) chase after a loose ball. Wesley had 10 assists.