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Laila Phelia has quickly risen through the ranks of the Michigan women’s basketball team. After seeing her role grow throughout the season, the freshman guard earned her first starting spot on Sunday against Akron and shows no signs of letting up.

Coming into college Phelia was ranked the No. 28 prospect in the country, one of the highest-ranked recruits the Wolverines have seen recently. Despite her high ranking, no one expected Phelia to make such a dramatic impact on the floor so soon. On a team led by a large group of seniors, with multiple junior and sophomore guards who’ve been on the team longer, it would’ve made sense for Phelia to find her spot on the bench.

Yet, in the first game of the season against IUPUI, Phelia saw 23 minutes of playing time — the most of any underclassman on the team. After senior guard Amy Dilk’s injury in that game, the Wolverines have needed a guard to step up. Michigan coach Kim Barnes Arico has tried many different lineups, most of which include Phelia — a sign that she believes Phelia is part of the answer.

So far this season, Phelia’s playing time has stayed consistent, averaging 20.1 minutes per game. She’s typically the first sub off the bench, relieving junior guard Maddie Nolan or senior wing Leigha Brown — until her first start during Sunday’s game.

“(Phelia’s) having an unbelievable freshman season,” Barnes Arico said after the Akron game. “I think she just gives us something that we don’t have. Her explosiveness to the basket, her ability to get in the lane, her ability to finish at the rim, and plus her defensive ability.”

Phelia’s presence on the floor forces opposing teams to defend another talented guard. While she isn’t the leading scorer or dominating the stats in one category, Phelia contributes in small yet meaningful ways. 

She’s become one of the Wolverines’ best defenders, holding opposing teams’ top guards to point totals well below their average. She’s also been a key player in the 1-2-2 press Michigan has flashed multiple times so far. When necessary, she can crash the boards and be a reliable free throw shooter. Phelia also ranks third on the team in steals, notching five so far this season.

“(Phelia) and (Wiggins) coming in just bring that spark of energy,” senior guard Danielle Rauch said in November. “They can pick up someone full court.”

As the season has progressed, she’s also looked more comfortable in the rotation and become an effective scorer. Averaging 7.1 points per game, Phelia brings another asset to an already powerful Michigan offense. And her ability to get in the lane and make plays has only increased alongside her minutes on the floor. Several times when key pieces were removed from the lineup due to injury or illness, Phelia has stepped up.

“Laila Phelia can really score the basketball,” Barnes Arico said on Nov. 20. “We knew that she was going to come into her own. She just had to do it a little bit faster than we had anticipated.”

Phelia’s ability to morph and adapt to whatever position the Wolverines need her to be has kept her on the floor. If she can continue to develop her talent alongside a strong upperclassmen group, Phelia could become a long-term focal point of Michigan’s starting lineup.