- Mechelle Voepel, espnW.com
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Erlana Larkins started this WNBA season just hoping to secure a job. Now, she's trying to help the Indiana Fever finish one.
The Fever have never won a playoff series on the road, and that's something they have to do Thursday in Game 3 (ESPN2, 8:30 p.m. ET) of the Eastern Conference finals at Connecticut if their season is to continue.
The Sun, who finished atop the East ahead of Indiana, won the first game of this series 76-64 at home last Friday. The Fever answered with a 78-76 thriller Monday in Indianapolis.
Now they meet once more to decide who will face defending champion Minnesota in the WNBA Finals, which begin Sunday in Minneapolis. The Lynx are watching and waiting, having completed their West finals series sweep against Los Angeles last Sunday.
The Fever have made the WNBA Finals once before, in 2009. But this would be a first for Larkins, who was drafted by New York out of North Carolina in 2008. She played for the Liberty for two years. At the start of the 2010 season, New York waived her. In 2011, she got a look in Phoenix's camp, but that didn't pan out.
"I kind of had the mentality that well, I almost gave up as far as the league was concerned," Larkins said. "I knew I had a job overseas, so I thought, 'Maybe it's not meant for me to be in the WNBA.'
"People called me here and there, but nothing came of it. That's why I'm so thankful to Indiana, because to me it really came out of nowhere that they were interested in me. My agent was trying to market me as best he could to various teams, because he knew that I could play. And Indiana believed in me. They gave me an opportunity when nobody else did."
Larkins has paid back that belief. She understood that rebounding was the biggest key to getting playing time for Fever coach Lin Dunn. Simple as it sounds, that was Dunn's most urgent request.
"At training camp, I had no idea about this team, really," Larkins said. "I had played against them, but I had been out of the league for two years. So I was just trying to do whatever Coach asked and have a quick learning curve.
"With the rebounding and playing defense, I'm just trying to let Coach know I appreciate the confidence she has in me. I'm going to keep trying to raise it up a notch."
The Fever initially were looking to Larkins to back up Tamika Catchings, who'd moved to the power forward position for 2012.
"But as the season went on, and the Olympic break happened, that time was very important for me," Larkins said. "Because we were able to practice nonstop, no subs, and I was able to work with the starting group in place of Catch, and build some chemistry."
When Catchings returned from the Olympics, Larkins was much more comfortable playing in either the 4 or 5 spots on the court. At 6 feet, 1 inch, she's definitely undersized at center in terms of height, but she's very strong and always has played "bigger" than she is.
"I've been playing the 5 since I stepped on campus at North Carolina," Larkins said. "Even when I was a skinny little freshman, I was doing that. It was a little different transitioning to the 4, but now I'm back where I'm used to playing."
Larkins' playing time and impact increased after the Olympic break. She started twice during the regular season, but has started four of the Fever's five playoff games thus far. She's averaging 12.2 points and 10.2 rebounds in this postseason.
"She gives them extra possessions that they weren't getting," Sun coach Mike Thibault said of Larkins' impact on the Fever. "At a point in the year when teams are even, and scouting reports are out there and you take away stuff, getting extra possessions on offensive boards gives you opportunities that you might not get otherwise.
"It's a 'little' thing, but in a game like [Monday], they got off three more field goal attempts than us. And it was a two-point win, and she ends up with six offensive rebounds."
Of course, Connecticut has the 2012 season MVP at center in Tina Charles, plus fellow starter Asjha Jones inside. Monday, they combined for 32 points and 18 rebounds. Guard Kara Lawson led the Sun with 18 points; Dunn said the Fever have to do a better job of trying to limit her touches.
Will Game 3 be like the opener, when the Sun were able to get some separation from the Fever and then hold them off? Or will it more resemble the back-and-forth nature of the second game? Whatever the case, it's very likely that Larkins could have an impact, which was not something that most were expecting from her when this season began.
"I can't say enough about Larkins," Dunn said. "She's just a warrior down in there. It's been a huge plus for us to have somebody down in the paint who can score, rebound and be very physical. It's been a huge plus for us."