A new defensive twist by the New York Liberty helped the team clinch its first Eastern Conference title and defeat the Washington Mystics for the first time this season.

Tamika Whitmore scored 20 points as the Liberty used a box-and-one defense in a 66-54 victory last night at Madison Square Garden.

"We were happy to get the win over Washington because they have beat us three times," first-year Liberty coach Richie Adubato said. "We were gambling a little bit with our defense tonight.

"With two stars on their team in [Chamique] Holdsclaw and [Nikki] McCray, if you can take McCray out of the game and the other people can beat you from the outside, then fine."

The Liberty held the two stars to a combined 6-for-16 shooting. McCray finished with 12 points, nine coming on free throws. Holdsclaw, who got in early foul trouble, had 11 points, six below her average.

"It's kind of frustrating because I've never seen a box-and-one this year," McCray said. "I just tried to do whatever to get open."

Crystal Robinson added 12 points for the Liberty (17-13), which has a 2 1/2-game lead over second-place Charlotte in the Eastern Conference with two games remaining. New York earned a first-round bye and home-court advantage in the playoffs by winning the regular season conference championship.

Holdsclaw, a New York native and the WNBA's No. 1 overall draft pick, had three fouls in the first half. After scoring the first basket of the second half, she picked up her fourth foul four minutes later.

Washington (12-19) was eliminated from playoff contention by Orlando on Sunday when the Mystics' six-game winning streak was snapped. It marked the first time since Holdsclaw began playing competitive basketball that her team did not make the playoffs.

The Mystics and Nancy Darsch, the former coach of the Liberty, were the only WNBA team to beat New York three times this season.

"We take it as a compliment that they had to play a combination defense and come up with a different game plan," Darsch said. "We have to learn how to be the hunted as well as the hunter."

Box score on Page D7

MERCURY 71, MONARCHS 59: Jennifer Gillom scored 28 points to lead Phoenix past Sacramento for the Mercury's league-record 10th consecutive home victory. Gillom become the second player in the WNBA's three-year history to score 1,500 points. Gillom has 1,518, second to Houston's Cynthia Cooper (1,950).