NEW YORK -- The heralded confrontation between Patrick Ewing and Alonzo Mourning, the two former All-America centers from Georgetown, lived up to its billing at Madison Square Garden yesterday. Final score: Ewing 33, Mourning 27.
But it was Ewing's strong supporting New York cast, led by reserve guards Greg Anthony and Rolando Blackman, plus a suffocating last-quarter defense, that turned the game in the Knicks' favor, leading to a 111-95 win over the Charlotte Hornets in the opener of the best-of-seven Eastern Conference semifinals.
The final margin was misleading. The Hornets, playing all but the opening minute of the first half without All-Star forward Larry Johnson, who suffered a badly sprained right leg, jumped to a 48-36 lead. After three quarters, the score was 80-80.
Johnson was taken to Beth Israel Hospital, where X-rays were negative. He returned late in the third quarter but was less than effective.
"In the first half, we got caught up in their tempo," Knicks coach Pat Riley said.
"We don't want to play a running game, stretching out the court, foul line to foul line.
"They didn't even need Johnson's post-up game. They got 10 layups alone in the first quarter and 24 first-half points in transition."
Riley, known for his ability to adjust, made the necessary changes in the second half. He switched to a smaller, more mobile lineup to offset the Hornets' speed, and Blackman and Anthony, with 14 points apiece, joined Ewing in firing up the offense.
With John Starks contributing two layups, the Knicks gained a 95-85 lead with 7:18 left and were not seriously challenged. Mourning, who out-scored Ewing, 21-18, in the first half, managed only six points in the final 24 minutes.
But Hornets coach Allan Bristow would not blame the fourth-quarter collapse on fatigue or his team's playoff inexperience. Rather, he blamed Johnson's hobbled condition as the key difference in lacking a finishing kick.
"We can't win this series without Larry Johnson. It's that simple," Bristow said.
"But scoring only 15 points in the fourth quarter had nothing to do with fatigue. We got 57 points in the first half and had the Knicks back on their heels. We didn't let them run their offense.
"Basically, in the fourth quarter we just didn't execute our offense," Bristow added. "But we're going to continue to attack them. If they beat us at our game, God bless them, and we'll take the rest of the spring off."
Bristow said he also would welcome Anthony and Knicks rebounding specialist Charles Oakley, who chipped in with 17 points, to continue to take perimeter jumpers.
"We'll gladly give them those shots the rest of the series," he said.
But for one game, it was a losing gamble.
Anthony has spent a good part of the season in Riley's doghouse for woofing at rivals and for getting suspended for sucker-punching Phoenix Suns guard Kevin Johnson. But the tTC second-year guard from Nevada-Las Vegas redeemed himself yesterday by scoring 14 points, including two three-pointers, dishing out six assists, grabbing six rebounds, and neutralizing Muggsy Bogues, Charlotte's elusive playmaker.
"Give Greg credit," Riley said. "I don't think his outside shooting today was a coincidence. He's been staying an hour after practice to work on that.