The No. 4 Michigan women’s basketball team was without one of its best players on Sunday against then-No. 21 Iowa. But it didn’t matter.
With senior wing Leigha Brown relegated to the bench with a day-to-day foot injury, the Wolverines could’ve snapped their seven-game win streak and lost to a formidable, yet beatable, team.
Instead, the depth Michigan has been building all season shined.
Starting the game in Brown’s place was guard Laila Phelia. Despite being a freshman, Phelia is no stranger to a starting role. For a short four-game stretch earlier in the season, Phelia started in place of junior guard Maddie Nolan.
Her explosive style of play has only grown as she’s found more time on the floor. Against the Hawkeyes, she notched 24 points in just 27 minutes — a career high. With Brown out, Phelia filled the gaps on the offensive end, driving into the lane and finding senior forwards Naz Hillmon and Emily Kiser in the paint.
“(Leigha) was talking to me before (the game) saying ‘This is your time, you need to step it up,’ ” Phelia said. “Going into the game, that was my mindset.”
On the defensive end, Phelia guarded Iowa guard Caitlin Clark. Holding one of the best scorers in the Big Ten to just 13 points midway through the third quarter, Phelia stepped up to the level of defense the Wolverines have made their standard.
“I thought Laila did an unbelievable job on (Clark) defensively,” Michigan coach Kim Barnes Arico said. “Obviously Laila had a career night on the offensive end as well. But defensively her length was really disruptive.”
With Brown out, Barnes Arico called on her bench much earlier than usual. Senior guard Amy Dilk consistently rotated in for senior guard Danielle Rauch, a common move since coming back from a leg injury midway through the season. Dilk had five assists and seven points on the night, adding another wrinkle for Iowa to guard.
Sophomore wing Elise Stuck also saw a few minutes early on, bringing valuable energy to the defense and giving rest to the remainder of the guards.
Aside from Dilk, sophomore Cameron Williams saw the most playing time coming off the bench. Scoring eight points in just 12 minutes, Williams always brings a spark to the floor, filling in easily for Hillmon or Kiser.
Despite the game seemingly decided in the Wovlerines favor heading into the fourth quarter, the Hawkeyes didn’t go away. With Clark scoring 25 points alone in the fourth — and multiple Michigan players struggling with foul trouble — the Wolverines had to continue to rely on their bench squad to bring the spark.
“We’ve had a number of different starting lineups throughout the season,” Barnes Arico said. “And I think one of the strengths of our team is to handle that adversity and to bounce back.”
Phelia answered the call, scoring 11 points in the fourth quarter. Combined with her defensive performance earlier in the game, she was a difference maker in Sunday’s matchup.
With a strong schedule still remaining, and the chance for a Big Ten title looming large, the Wolverines’ development of their bench has only made them stronger.
Luckily for them, their talent runs deep.