Opening brings out best in Wizards 95-78 victory over Sonics christens MCI Center

December 03, 1997|By Jerry Bembry | Jerry Bembry,SUN STAFF

WASHINGTON -- As Rod Strickland and the Washington Wizards walked off the court at the MCI Center last night, they heard what has been an odd sound from home fans this season -- cheers.

"I didn't hear any boos," Strickland said. "So, in that sense, it was better."

The Wizards didn't hear any boos because, on opening night at their new arena, they did something they hadn't done in five previous tries this season -- win on their home court.

Not only did they win, they won handily -- 95-78 -- over what had been the hottest team in the NBA, the Seattle SuperSonics, before a sellout crowd of 20,674.

In victory they also ended Seattle's seven-game winning streak. This time, even President Clinton, who last year attended a game when Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls were in town, came to see the home team.

"We've never lost with the Bullets, Wizards or Georgetown when [President Clinton] has come to games," said Wizards owner Abe Pollin, enjoying the moment 24 years to the date that the Bullets began play at Capital Centre with a win over Seattle.

"I told him, 'You gotta give up your day job.' "

Maybe, Clinton -- who spent time before the game playing interactive hockey, baseball and basketball games -- might make attending games more of a routine if the Wizards can play like they did last night.

Washington shared the ball as well as it has all season, which led to balanced scoring. Juwan Howard and Tracy Murray had 18 points each to lead six players in double figures.

"This is definitely a great place to play," said Murray, who hit four of seven three-pointers. "But I was just trying to get a win."

Strickland also won a duel between two of the league's best points guards as he helped limit Gary Payton to nine points, seven assists and five rebounds. Strickland finished with 13 points and seven rebounds, although his nine assists ended a four-game streak of double-digit assists.

Washington won because it didn't collapse in the second half, which has been a trait all season. The Wizards led by as many as 15 in the first half -- helped by a 24-3 run from the end of the first quarter into the second quarter.

And the Wizards kept it up in the second half, behind a defense that held the Sonics to just 33 points. They led by as many as 18 points in the fourth quarter on the way to their second-biggest margin of victory this season.

"This was an appropriate culmination," said Wizards coach Bernie Bickerstaff, who thought it was inappropriate that the team blew a 17-point lead in a loss to Chicago in the last game at USAirways Arena on Saturday.

"But we have to focus. This is history. We have another important game coming up."

As for the MCI Center, it received high marks all around, for everything from its spacious locker rooms to improved sightlines to general atmosphere.

Asked to compare the building to other NBA arenas, Bickerstaff said: "MCI Center is the jewel. I think it's wonderful, and it's even better now that we've won."

Pub Date: 12/03/97

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