For the first time since November, the No. 18 Michigan women’s basketball team’s starting lineup featured a new face Thursday night. With sophomore guard Laila Phelia out with a lower leg injury, sophomore guard Jordan Hobbs earned her first career start with big shoes to fill against a strong conference opponent.
But despite missing their leading scorer and best defender, the Wolverines found a way to win — convincingly.
Behind successful adjustments necessitated by Phelia’s absence, a dominant second quarter and a poor early offensive showing from Illinois, Michigan (18-5 overall, 8-4 Big Ten) defeated the Fighting Illini (17-6, 7-5), 74-57.
“We knew Laila wasn’t going to be playing and it’s always interesting for a coach to see how your team is going to respond to that,” Michigan coach Kim Barnes Arico said. “And I thought our crew was terrific. They just really responded, they all locked in, they played extremely hard, and we got up early against a really good Illinois team.”
Absent Phelia’s two-way prowess, the Wolverines switched things up from the get-go by starting the game in a zone defense instead of their typical man. Also forced to go deeper into the bench than normal and subbing far more frequently, Michigan didn’t immediately find its offensive rhythm. Still, it carried a five-point lead at the end of the first quarter on the back of a poor shooting performance from Illinois.
The Wolverines’ tweaks made in Phelia’s absence stymied the Illini, who struggled to get things going. Illinois couldn’t beat the zone, putting up its lowest first-quarter total of the season with just nine points while shooting 3-for-14 from the field.
“Illinois has three dynamic, dynamic guards that we knew were probably going to give us fits anyway, with (Phelia) healthy,” Barnes Arico said. “… So yesterday, we tried to put (the zone) in a little bit and then we walked through it again this morning at shootaround. And I think it really was disruptive in the first half.”
Then, in the second quarter, Michigan’s offense exploded while the Illini’s offensive woes against the unanticipated look continued.
Absent Phelia and her reliable three-level offense, the Wolverines turned to both new and familiar faces to pick up the slack. Fifth-year wing Leigha Brown was lights out en route to scoring a game-high 27 points on 10-of-13 shooting. The rest of the team snapped into place around her, rebounding Illinois’ misses and making them count on the other end.
On the back of a 15-0 run over just three minutes, the Wolverines turned a seven-point lead into a dominant 36-14 advantage with 3:36 left in the first half. Michigan’s craftiness wasn’t limited to the defensive end, though. Five different players contributed to the run, scoring from all three levels while Brown led the charge.
Without their leading scorer, the Wolverines still managed to put up their highest first-half total of conference play, taking a 41-22 lead into the locker room.
But the Illini weren’t going down without a fight. Illinois made more field goals in the third quarter than it had in the entire first half, repeatedly cutting into Michigan’s lead as it started to figure out the zone. The Illini relentlessly chipped away at their deficit for the first 15 minutes of the half, cutting it to as few as eight points midway through the fourth quarter.
“Sometimes when you get up big, you just start to feel comfortable,” junior wing Elise Stuck said. “And I think that’s something we talk about a lot, trying to avoid that feeling or at least recognizing it and being able to just make the adjustment.”
But even with its newfound offensive success, Illinois couldn’t stop Michigan on the other end. The Illini committed nine of their 19 fouls in the final frame, sending the Wolverines to the free throw line for 14 attempts in the period.
“We just slowed the pace down a little,” Hobbs said. “We took some quick shots when they went on their run, so we just wanted to kind of get into our plays and our style of offense.”
As Michigan refused to relent, it rebuilt its lead on the back of the same strategy that established that lead in the first place: switching things up — and doing so successfully. Once again finding offense in new places, 11 of the Wolverines’ 19 points in the fourth quarter came from the free throw line.
Without its leading scorer, so much could have gone wrong for Michigan. Instead, the Wolverines made necessary adjustments and took them in stride, finding a way to win — and doing so handily.