Freshman guard Ari Wiggins followed her player around the 3-point line up to the wing. Running a little behind, she was nearly caught off guard by the pass swinging around the arc. Instead, with a burst of speed, she leapt in front of her player, grabbed the ball and dribbled down the floor for a wide-open fast-break layup — the first points of her collegiate career.
Wiggins makes up one-fourth of one of the most anticipated freshman recruiting class the Michigan women’s basketball team (1-0 overall) has ever had. And it showed on Tuesday night in the eleventh-ranked Wolverines’ home opener against IUPUI (0-1).
Coming into any season, the question always on the table is where the freshmen will fall in the lineup. On a team like Michigan with Big Ten Player of the Year senior forward Naz Hillmon and a returning group of upperclassmen rich with experience, the likely answer would be on the end of the bench.
Yet, the Wolverines’ freshmen combined for 44 minutes of playing time against the Jaguars. Wiggins and freshman guard Laila Phelia both saw the floor early, with Phelia checking in during the first quarter and Wiggins early in the second. Freshman guard Jordan Hobbs also clocked in eight minutes of playing time — double that of junior guard Michelle Sidor’s, a player with more experience and one of the Wolverines’ best 3-point shooters.
Wiggins and Phelia became defensive specialists in Tuesday’s game. The Wolverines ran a 1-2-2 full-court press early in the game, trying to force turnovers from IUPUI before the ball could cross half-court and end up in the hands of three-time Horizon Player of the Year forward Macee Williams.
The duo of Wiggins and Phelia played the second level of the press, standing behind Hillmon as she pressed the Jaguars’ point guard. They added speed and length to that level, something the Wolverines have lacked in their full-court press before. Their main job was to trap in the short-corner, and they excelled: IUPUI had 15 turnovers on the night.
“(Phelia) and (Wiggins) coming in just bring that spark of energy,” senior guard Danielle Rauch said. “They can pick up someone full court. And I think something about us this year too, is we’re really long. We have really good length so when we do something like that 1-2-2 press, you know we can close down traps really well and play in between to make it really difficult.”
While Wiggins and Phelia’s contributions to the game were undeniable, their increased playing time wasn’t part of the original game plan. Senior guard Amy Dilk went down 40 seconds into the game with a knee injury and never returned. The freshmen were expected to get some playing time, but Dilk’s absence brought about a new opportunity for the freshmen duo.
“(Dilk’s injury) affected our rotation,” Michigan coach Kim Barnes Arico said. “A lot of freshmen were on the floor tonight, especially late in the game, and I think they did a tremendous job.”
Senior wing Leigha Brown has also struggled with injuries recently, and is not yet at 100%. This opens up some of her playing time for Wiggins and Phelia to step in and give her some rest.
Phelia also notched four points and four rebounds in her 23 minutes on the court. Wiggins had one steal and two points. Dilk’s offensive presence can’t be replaced, and if her injury persists, it could pose a long-term problem for Michigan. But if the duo’s defensive consistency can transfer to the offensive end, they could become a staple in the Wolverines’ rotation. Dilk’s playing status remains to be seen, but with Brown and Dilk both injured, this would be the chance for freshmen like Wiggins and Phelia to step up into their role.
Throughout Tuesday night’s game, Michigan needed a spark. And each time Wiggins and Phelia stepped on the floor, through their aggressive defensive performance, that’s what they became.
“That’s what we need,” Rauch said. “For people to come off the bench and be a spark.”