Partway through the second quarter, sophomore guard Laila Phelia trapped a Delaware State guard at the top of the key. With active hands and arms raised, Phelia pressured the ball, poking it loose. She snatched it up and sped down the court, attacking another Hornet in the paint. She then found sophomore guard Ari Wiggins with a bounce pass for the easy layup that extended the No. 25 Michigan women’s basketball team’s lead to 22.
That steal was emblematic of Phelia’s game, as she made her impact known on the defensive end for the Wolverines in Wednesday’s season-opening win. She pressured the ball, moved actively in help defense and contested shots — leading the team with three blocks.
“I know that we need to be able to defend, because right now, we’re getting there, but I felt like that was like my biggest goal overall,” Phelia said. “Yeah, I had a big season last year, but then now, it’s like, ‘OK, now this is a different team, and what can I bring? What can I help this team to become successful?’ And I feel like right now that’s defense.”
Phelia wants the challenge of guarding the best player on the opposing team each game. Against the Hornets, she was a menace on the defensive end. Her lockdown defense prevented Delaware State from getting shots off and contributed to Michigan forcing numerous shot-clock violations.
But while Phelia knows she needs to step up on defense, her offense isn’t lacking either. Phelia led the Wolverines with 20 points, a significant increase from the 8.8 points she averaged last season. She was a major threat off the bounce, and her attack in the paint was a major factor in Michigan’s success. But this year, the Wolverines need something different from Phelia: a 3-point shooting threat.
“I feel like (3-point shooting has) been my biggest focus for offense,” Phelia said. “Because last year, I just drove the ball a lot … So I feel like if I can be able to consistently knock that down to some extent, then it’ll help us a lot.”
And against Delaware State, Phelia did just that, knocking down four of six shots from beyond the arc.
“I think last year, she was so phenomenal off the bounce, and that was something that our team needed,” Michigan coach Kim Barnes Arico said. “But Laila wants to be the best player in the world … She wants to be a three-dimensional scorer, where she can score from all three levels … She had a great shot last year too, she was just a little bit more hesitant with it. She needs to feel confident shooting it and know that she has the green light to shoot it.”
If Phelia can continue to be a three-dimensional player for the Wolverines, she will not only be a threat off the dribble but also beyond the arc. The development of that skill could make it exponentially more difficult for opponents to guard her.
And in non-competitive early season games, Phelia has the opportunity to build that 3-point shooting confidence and become an even bigger threat on the offensive end.
Phelia came into the season ready to take on a larger role in her sophomore season. And in her first game of the year, she laid the foundation for what that role could be.