NEW YORK -- After struggling for consistency earlier in the season, the New York Liberty are peaking as they head into the final stretch.
Cappie Pondexter scored 23 points and the Liberty rode a big second-quarter surge to an 85-77 victory over the Washington Mystics on Friday night for their fifth straight victory. New York, which has its longest winning streak since opening the 2007 season with five wins, is 9-2 since the All-Star break.
"The beginning of the second half, when we played Chicago, that's when we kind of turned things around," Pondexter said. "That first game after the All-Star break was important for us. We've just been playing great basketball."
Leilani Mitchell had 16 points, Taj McWilliams-Franklin added 12 and Plenette Pierson 10 for the Liberty (16-11), who outscored the Mystics 24-7 in the second quarter to take a 14-point halftime lead before cruising to their seventh win in eight games.
"At the beginning of the season we came in with a bunch of new personnel and a new coaching staff for a full season, so there was a lot of transition and a lot of changes that occurred," Liberty coach Anne Donovan said. "The team has worked on their defense and we have become one of the best teams in the WNBA in my opinion."
New York pulled into a tie with Washington (16-11) for third place in the Eastern Conference, one game behind Atlanta and Indiana. The Liberty, the Mystics and the Fever all have seven games remaining, while the Dream have five.
"We're doing a great job of just taking a game at a time," Pondexter said. "We're having fun, we're trusting each other. We have a great coaching staff, they definitely prepare us."
New York shot 53 percent (32 for 60) from the field, including 9 for 13 on 3-pointers. Pondexter and Mitchell both made four 3s, and Mitchell is shooting 29 for 49 (59 percent) from beyond the arc in the last nine games.
"A lot of them are just open 3-pointers," Mitchell said. "Cappie and other players do a good job of sucking in the defense and they find me wide open on the outside."
Monique Currie scored 23 points and Matee Ajavon had 20 for the Mystics, who had won three straight following a stretch in which they lost five of six.
"We started the game really well, moving the ball, sharing the ball, but we needed to get shots and we didn't do that," Washington coach Julie Plank said. "I was not pleased with our defense. ... We let them shoot too high a percentage and we gave up too many 3s."
After trailing by 23 points near the midpoint of the fourth quarter, the Mystics had a furious rally and pulled within seven in the final minute. However, that was as close as they got. Nikki Blue hit one free throw and Kia Vaughn made two to seal New York's win.
The Mystics beat the Liberty twice at home, by an average of 16.5 points, in the first month of the season, and Plank has noticed the difference in New York's play.
"They've gotten a lot better throughout the season," she said. "They've been playing together more and they're playing really well at both ends of the floor. They won nine out of 11 and they're peaking at the right time."
Trailing 19-12 late in the first quarter, the Liberty went on a 20-3 run to take a 10-point lead. McWilliams-Franklin scored six consecutive points during the stretch, including two free throws that tied the score at 20-all and the jumper that put New York ahead for good with 5:44 left in the period. Janel McCarville's jumper with 2:15 remaining increased the lead to 32-22.
After the Mystics scored the next four points to pull within six, Mitchell hit back-to-back 3-pointers and McWilliams-Franklin added a jumper to give the Liberty a 40-26 lead at the break.
Mitchell converted a three-point play near the midpoint of the third quarter and Plenette Pierson made a layup to stretch the lead to 55-36 with 4:09 left. Essence Carson's jumper with 7:39 remaining in the game gave New York its biggest lead of the game, 68-45.
Currie made a free throw with about 2 1/2 minutes left and Ajavon stole the ensuing inbounds pass and made a layup to pull Washington to 80-67. Ajavon and Marissa Coleman had consecutive 3-pointers to pull Washington to 82-75 with 25.5 seconds remaining.