LANDOVER -- Juwan Howard was sitting in front of his locker, with one of those "what can I say?" looks on his face. For the second time this season, the Washington Bullets looked to end a long losing streak to the Phoenix Suns. And for the second time, they failed.
"It's the same thing that happened when we lost out there in Phoenix," Howard said. "I think we should have won both. A game like this is tough to lose."
This loss, a 123-115 overtime defeat before a sellout crowd of 18,756 at the USAir Arena, extended Washington's losing streak against Phoenix to 16 games. And it was tough to swallow because the Bullets appeared to have the game won in regulation.
With 26 seconds left and a 108-106 lead, Howard rebounded a Danny Manning miss. It seemed the worst the Bullets could do was run the shot clock down, leaving the Suns but two seconds for a tying shot.
Instead an entry pass from Brent Price to Howard was stolen by Charles Barkley with nine seconds left. Barkley, ignoring a call for timeout by coach Cotton Fitzsimmons, raced up the floor for a tying layup with six seconds left.
A potential game-winning shot by Calbert Cheaney (season-high 29 points) just before the buzzer bounced off the rim. And in the five-minute overtime, the Suns never trailed, ending Washington's three-game win streak, and four-game home winning streak.
"We can't play any harder," a subdued Bullets coach Jim Lynam said. "We played a hard game against a hard team that is !B re-establishing themselves. It's a game we should have won."
And that may have been the case two weeks ago, when the Suns were losing eight of nine games. That stretch included losses to Minnesota, the Los Angeles Clippers (twice) and Dallas -- and eventually cost coach Paul Westphal his job.
But since that stretch, Barkley, Kevin Johnson, John Williams and Manning have returned to health and the Suns' play is looking rosier, too. Last night Phoenix concluded an impressive 5-3 road trip that puts its record at 20-24.
"I looked at these last nine games as the preseason," Fitzsimmons said. "Now we get down to serious business. I'm looking forward to it. I hope by the end of February we'll be a good team."
There were signs of that yesterday with four players scoring 20 points or better. Barkley had 31 (and 15 rebounds), Johnson 23 (with 13 assists), Manning 22 in 25 minutes, and Wayman Tisdale 20. The contributions from Manning and Tisdale came from the bench, where Phoenix had a 47-22 edge.
Despite being a team with no real center, the Suns were able to negate Gheorghe Muresan. Muresan spent time defending Tisdale and Williams, both of whom set up offensively away from the basket. Muresan did have 11 points and 10 rebounds, but he managed just six shots the entire game and fouled out with 1:22 left in regulation.
"Getting Muresan out of the game was a key," Fitzsimmons said.
Before he left, Muresan caught the wrath of Barkley. In the third quarter Barkley didn't take too kindly to what he thought was an errant elbow thrown by Muresan, and shoved Washington's 7-foot-7 center. Barkley was called for a foul, and spent a good part of the next minute giving Muresan a loud lecture.
"Barkley can't guard me," Muresan said. "So he gets nervous and talks."
Barkley spent a lot of the game talking. And knocking bodies to the floor. He and Howard exchanged shoves, elbows and words during several trips down the court in the third quarter before both were slapped with technical fouls.
But when it counted the most, Barkley made the big plays.
"They were letting him be physical down there, and he wound up making a great play," Price said of the Barkley steal at the end of regulation. "We had two or three turnovers on that one play. It was my fault because I was making the pass. We're disappointed."
NOTES: Washington was out-rebounded, 50-38, and made just 18 of 29 free throws. . . . Howard scored 23 points and grabbed a season-high 14 rebounds. . . . Guard Robert Pack said his damaged nerve in his right leg is improving slightly. "It's the least painful, and the most frustrating injury I've ever had," said Pack.