- The Washington Times - Saturday, April 2, 2005

ORLANDO, Fla. — Orlando might be one of the country’s most popular tourist destinations, but it never has been a welcoming place for the Washington Wizards.

Last night, the Wizards nearly added another ugly page to their history of miserable visits to the central Florida city.

The Wizards, who had lost 15 of 16 in Orlando, escaped with a 111-102 victory over the Magic at TD Waterhouse Centre despite nearly blowing a 25-point lead in the second half.

After entering the fourth quarter trailing 93-69, Orlando ran off a 23-4 run to reduce what looked like an insurmountable lead to 97-92 with 4:05 left.

“It’s hard to keep a 20-point lead the whole game and stay mentally focused,” lamented Wizards guard Gilbert Arenas, who finished with a game-high 31 points. “We thought they gave up. They just decided to come full force, and it caused some problems. We stayed in cruise control. We wanted to beat them bad, which we were doing, but they came back.”

The victory gave Washington (41-30) its first nonlosing season since 1997-98, when the team went 42-40.

In the crucial stages of the comeback, the Wizards’ situation worsened when Larry Hughes (30 points, nine rebounds and four assists) briefly left the game with an elbow injury.

During Hughes’ absence, which lasted a little more than two minutes, Arenas converted two baskets, the latter a 3-pointer that gave the Wizards a 102-92 lead.

Orlando cut the lead to 107-102 with less than a minute remaining, but the Wizards held on by making four of their last six free throws.

“When you dig a hole like that, no matter what kind of run you make, it’s even harder to make the next step and take the lead,” Orlando coach Chris Jent said. “We just kind of ran out of gas and fell victim to a great performance by their two leading guys.”

With the win, the Wizards nudged their lead over Chicago (40-31) — winners of eight straight but idle last night — to a full game in the race for the fourth seed in the Eastern Conference playoffs and the homecourt advantage that comes with it.

“It’s almost like a covenant they’ve made among themselves that we are going to close this season out on a high note,” Wizards coach Eddie Jordan said of his team, which is 11 games above .500 for the second time this season.

Hughes said he is keeping an eye on potential playoff matchups against the Bulls or the Cleveland Cavaliers. All he and his teammates appear to be interested in is keeping homecourt advantage.

“If we play [Chicago], good,” Hughes said. “If we play Cleveland, good. It doesn’t matter. We want to get there. We feel like we have a good team. We know what teams are doing. Teams like Chicago are starting to play. Cleveland is struggling a little bit. We know what’s going on.”

Orlando (34-38), which could have used the victory to stay in the race for the eighth spot in the East, was paced by rookie of the year candidate Dwight Howard’s 22 points and 11 rebounds. Former Maryland star Steve Francis finished with 21 points and 10 rebounds.

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