By Tom Rietmann
INDIANAPOLIS -- Using a familiar script, the Indiana Fever opened the WNBA season's second half by putting away the visiting Washington Mystics from the 3-point arc.
But here's the stunning news: Indiana set up its 84-66 victory on Thursday night by blocking out and and battling for every rebound. One of the league's worst rebounding teams in the first half of 2012, the Fever performed like one of the best, recording a 47-39 bulge on the glass.
Coach Lin Dunn had listed improved rebounding atop the Fever priority list as her players prepared for the stretch run and, they hope, a push to the WNBA Finals.
Dunn liked what she saw against Washington.
“The emphasis for the night was to start off the second season leading the league in rebounding. Forget about what happened the first half of the season,” said Dunn, whose Fever ranked 10th in rebounding among 12 teams at the halfway mark.
The Fever, a WNBA leader in 3-pointers, connected on 9-of-25 against Washington and pulled away by outscoring the Mystics 44-28 in the second half. Erlana Larkins led the Fever with a career-high 16 points in 20 minutes.
Indeed, Larkins' performance was the story of the night. Her scoring buoyed the Fever. Her rebounding effort -- four on offense and seven overall -- inspired her teammates.
“That's what we need from E,” said Tamika Catchings, who returned from the London Olympic Games on Sunday and four days later collected 14 points and 14 rebounds. “We need her to be a rebounding monster. And offensively, she had a great night. She's just so active.”
With Catchings off winning a gold medal with her U.S. teammates the past month, Larkins received a lot of the Fever star's practice repetitions at power forward. She capitalized.
“Tonight was a step in the right direction,” said Larkins, who before 2012 went two seasons without making a WNBA roster.
Larkins' teammates weren't so reserved about singing the praises of the former North Carolina standout.
“I just think it was all about comfort,” said Fever guard Katie Douglas, who scored 11. “We need her to come out and be a force like that off the bench. I think she definitely demonstrated that she'd been working hard during the Olympic break.”
For Larkins, rebounding is part persistence, part all-out effort.
“She practices like that,” guard Erin Phillips said. “She was just awesome tonight and brought a whole new level, a whole new aggression.
“I think Erlana is the one who's setting the standard and raising the bar,” Phillips added, referring to the Fever's rebounding improvement. “It's influencing the whole team.”
Indiana, in second place in the Eastern Conference, boosted its record to 11-7 ahead of Saturday night's game against Atlanta at Bankers Life Fieldhouse. Indiana also gained a game on first-place Connecticut (15-5), which lost on Thursday to New York.
The Fever wants home-court advantage in the playoffs. To get the necessary high seed, Dunn and her team know the rebounding numbers can't continue to dwell near the cellar.
That's where Larkins comes in.
“She just has a nose for the basketball,” Dunn said. “She gives a toughness to our team that we haven't had.”