Emma Mati/Daily. Buy this photo.

WICHITA, KAN. — With the Michigan women’s basketball team up five with 1:58 left in the game, South Dakota proceeded to tie the game in just one minute, mounting a late rally. As the momentum shifted to the Coyotes, the Wolverines looked to an unlikely source. 

Freshman guard Laila Phelia.

Not senior forward Naz Hillmon, a first-team All-American, or senior guard Leigha Brown, the second-leading scorer, but the lone underclassman starter on the team.

With time winding down on the shot clock, Michigan looked to run an action to try to get inside. But the stingy defense of South Dakota held strong, forcing no passes inside the paint. With seven seconds left on the shot clock, Phelia took it the distance herself, scoring a contested layup with 22 seconds left to put Wolverines up 50-48 late — a lead they would not relinquish, sending them to their first ever Elite Eight appearance.

“I knew the clock was running down,” Phelia said. “At that point I knew I needed to attack the basket. My teammates told me now is not the time to hesitate.”

Phelia’s shot was ultimately the difference maker in the game. And before the biggest shot of her career, Phelia stepped up many times during the game.

With Hillmon being triple-teamed early and unable to make a basket, Michigan looked to Phelia for scoring. 

When Michigan was trailing by three halfway through the second quarter, Phelia took over. Seemingly every time South Dakota made a shot, Phelia would respond. 

She scored nine of the last 11 points in the first half for the Wolverines, including two 3-pointers to help them hold with the Coyotes.

“She is just special,” Michigan coach Kim Barnes Arico said. “She is something we don’t have, a dynamic we don’t have: The ability to get to the rim against anyone and the ability to knock down three’s. 

In the second half, Phelia’s only points came from her game winning layup. Despite this, Phelia was able to thrive on the defensive side of the ball. 

While it does not show on the score sheet, Phelia’s off ball defense put South Dakota in difficult shooting positions in the third quarter. With Michigan down two heading into the second half, it held the Coyotes to 3-of-11 shooting, putting it up one heading into the fourth.

“She is an unbelievable and incredible defender,” Barnes Arico said. “It’s hard to take her off the floor because of how she defends.”  

With Leigha Brown out with a lower leg injury in the game against Indiana nearly two months ago, Phelia was pressed into the starting lineup.

Since starting, Phelia has seen her offensive game thrive — averaging 11.4 points per game, four more points than when she comes off the bench.

“She is just learning everyday,” Barnes Arico said. “She is just a baby and she wants to learn. She is just a sponge and her upperclassmen love her.”

With nearly two months in the starting lineup, Barnes Arico gave Phelia the green light to make perhaps the biggest shot in Michigan program history. 

“She was yelling at me to score,” Phelia said. “That right there, that gave me the most confidence in the world. Just being able to have the head coach sit there and tell me to go score and don’t hesitate at all. I felt like that helped a lot. I know that she has faith in me.”

That faith helped push the Wolverines to victory.  

“When she had the ball in her hands, I was confident something good would happen and I just let her play and she was able to make the layup,” Barnes Arico said… “Laila is going to be a phenomenal, phenomenal player with us (the next three years). She makes big plays.”