Nikki McCray's smile can be as explosive as her game, and both were recharged midway through the second half of last night's 71-63 victory over the New York Liberty at MCI Center, the Mystics' first home victory since last August. McCray took a pass on the run, dribbled underneath the basket and passed to forward Murriel Page, who posted two points with ease. McCray never stopped running -- she knew Page's shot was good without looking -- and as she ran up court, she broke into a huge smile and pumped her fist in the air.

That basket, which put Washington up 46-39 and capped a 14-4 run to open the second half, was symbolic for McCray.

"I knew we had the game then," said McCray, who scored 16 points and tied a career high with nine assists. "We hit that shot, and there it went. We had them playing at our tempo, and although they made a run, we played smart down the stretch."

The Liberty was able to pull within four, but got no closer. For the first time all year, the Mystics stayed strong in the second half. In the game's pivotal moments, New York couldn't break down the Mystics' defense. During a five-minute stretch in the second half, New York's offensive possessions read like this: 1 for 6 field goal shooting, with two offensive fouls and a traveling violation.

"Maybe it's just all starting to sink in, but tonight we played with confidence and poise," Mystics Coach Nancy Darsch said. "We picked and chose our shots, we made them play defense, and we executed a lot better."

The Mystics (3-8) dominated in the post despite Page and forward Shalonda Enis giving up 50 pounds to New York's Sue Wicks and Kym Hampton. A quick, precise passing game and a 2-3 defensive zone helped the undersized Mystics outrebound New York (34-26) and score more points in the lane (34-6).

The teams battled for control in the first half. The Mystics, who gave New York (7-4) its only home loss this season, 83-61 on June 14, trailed 33-32 at halftime. In the first half, Washington used nine players, including guard Monica Maxwell, who had scored only one field goal in the previous three games. By using what Darsch called "smart bench play," the Mystics were able to keep their players fresh and out of foul trouble.

New York extended its lead in the second half to 39-36, but then the Mystics rallied. McCray hit a three-pointer, and moments later took a transition pass from Chamique Holdsclaw (14 points) and scored. Holdsclaw then hit two jump shots to put the Mystics up 52-43.

Taking second-half leads is nothing new to the Mystics, but the result of this game was. The team had been ahead in previous games, only to lose control with undisciplined play.

"This is something we want to learn from," McCray said. "In previous games we've been taking quick shots. Tonight I hit an open three, and a jump shot in the corner, and we were able to find the open player all night."

McCray played more relaxed and in control.

"I got my minutes tonight, and I had 16 points and nine assists and those are good numbers," McCray said. "It's easier for me to get into my game when I'm out there a lot."

New York guard Teresa Weatherspoon, who led the Liberty with 16 points, said her team couldn't stop the Mystics.

"We didn't play aggressive on the defensive side. . . . We didn't stop the runs or take the momentum away," she said.

For the Mystics, it was nice to finally win at home.

"Our fans are wonderful and I'm glad that we could go out and show them how we can play," Holdsclaw said. "For us to beat New York, the team first in the conference, feels wonderful. It feels great to win at home."

CAPTION: Nikki McCray, who has struggled at times, was able to "get into my game" and led Mystics with 16 points, 9 assists.

CAPTION: Mystics' home win over New York was a double treat for Chamique Holdsclaw, who had 14 points.