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


WASHINGTON -- For once this season, Washington's home fans consistently cheered for the home team. For once, President Clinton came to a game to watch the home team. For once, the Wizards were victorious on their home court.

On opening night for the spanking-new MCI Center, against a Seattle SuperSonics team that entered the game with a 13-3 record, the Wizards ended a five-game, home-court losing streak with a 95-78 win before a crowd of 20,674.

Juwan Howard and Tracy Murray scored 18 points and center Terry Davis added 14 for Washington, which improved to 6-11. Vin Baker scored 22 points and Detlef Schrempf had 17 for the Sonics (13-4).

It was all totally different from Saturday night, when the Wizards were booed off the court after their loss to the Chicago Bulls in the final game at US Airways Arena.

Last night, as multicolored balloons were released from the rafters, the home crowd gave the Wizards a standing ovation.

Afterward, Chris Webber said: "It was a pleasure playing before this type of crowd. We were passing the ball and executing well. I can't say the crowd had an effect, but it felt good to hear them cheer. It's a good feeling, and a great win for us."

For a team that has suffered second-half slumps all season -- the Wizards blew a 17-point first-half lead against the Bulls -- last night could have marked a turning point in confidence. Washington had a 51-45 halftime lead, which it built to 74-63 going into the final quarter. From there, the Wizards were not really challenged the rest of the game.

Wizards point guard Rod Strickland had a streak of four straight double-digit assist games ended, but he was still solid. Strickland had 17 points, nine assists and seven rebounds as he outplayed Seattle All-Star guard Gary Payton (nine points, seven assists, five rebounds).

Said Seattle coach George Karl: "We got worked out tonight in the paint, on the boards, defensively. Washington is a good team. I'm sure they're tired of losing. It's good for them, but bad for us."

For the record, Davis scored the first points in MCI Center history on a tip-in of a Calbert Cheaney miss 40 seconds into the game. In fact Davis, normally not much of an offensive threat, scored Washington's first six points.

The Wizards had a 29-25 lead at the end of the first quarter and, on the strength of a 22-3 run, had a 45-28 lead with 6: 24 left in the half after a short jumper by Cheaney. While the Sonics rallied to pull to within 51-45 at the half, this was not to be a night in which the Wizards would falter at the end.

"It didn't feel like a home game," said Howard. "It felt like we were at an away arena. We haven't achieved that comfort level yet. [But] it was just great to get us a win. To start off on the right note, we have to be proud of ourselves."

Said Davis: "I had a lot of fun. I'm just happy to be a part of this team. It meant more to me to win, basically, than to hit the first basket. To beat this team, it meant a lot to us. But we have to stay on track. We had a lot of movement, and a lot of guys touched the ball."

Pub Date: 12/03/97

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