It’s a frigid winter morning in Ann Arbor. Harsh gusts of wind — the kind that freezes your hair or prompts searches for spring break flights to Mexico — cut through the snow-covered streets near campus. At around 7:30 a.m., the sun finally rises. Some students emerge from their houses, brushing snow from their cars and cursing their past selves for picking a college so far from the equator. Most don’t, instead opting to stay in the refuge of their warm beds.
But Laila Phelia has already been up for almost two hours.
Each morning, the sophomore guard gets up at 5:45, and starts her day with film study before engrossing herself in the normal, day-to-day rigor of an in-season student-athlete schedule. The routine, she says, came from her mother, and dates back to her time at Mount Notre Dame high school in Cincinnati.
“My parents believe in a healthy, active lifestyle,” Phelia told the Daily. “My mom used to actually wake me up at 4:45 in high school before class. It started off my freshman year, she used to wake me up to go to boot camp with her in the mornings. My mom really believed in that. She really built that habit in my four years of high school. I definitely did not like it.”
Though Phelia didn’t appreciate that lifestyle then, her grueling morning routine paid off in a big way for her on the basketball court. Mount Notre Dame won two state championships during her four years with the team — and likely would have added a third had the pandemic not cut her junior season short, according to head coach Scott Rogers.
Key to that success, Rogers said, was Phelia’s rampant work ethic.
“She always was searching for that little flaw,” Rogers told the Daily. “And if it bugged her, she worked at it until she got it right.”
By her senior year, it seemed that there weren’t many bugs left for her to fix: Phelia was starting on one of the best high school teams in the country, named a McDonald’s All-American nominee and committed to a top Division One program. But that success didn’t come easily for her, it was a product of early morning workouts and long hours in the gym.
Phelia started playing basketball later than many of her eventual teammates on the Cougars, and spent much of her early career fighting to keep up with those around her. One of those teammates was KK Bransford, a now-freshman guard at Notre Dame and one of Phelia’s close friends.
“I remember when we were younger, she would always ask which way the basket was at halftime,” Bransford told the Daily. “And then all of the sudden, her seventh grade year, out of nowhere she became one of the best players on the team. She had a huge jump, and I know she worked really hard in the offseason — I remember her telling me that journey and struggle, because she fell in love with the game of basketball. … Because the way she transformed into such a great player (I) knew it was all because of her work.”
By her freshman year in high school, Phelia had worked her way into a starting spot on the area’s top AAU team in a much older age group, playing alongside Bransford and the rest of Cincinnati’s top talent in the high school offseason. Her love for the game of basketball and tenacious regiment were paying dividends, and her on-court performances reflected as much.
But in terms of potential, Phelia was only just scratching the surface.
On Dec. 8, the Michigan women’s basketball team fell to Toledo — its’ first loss of the season. The Wolverines came out flat early and couldn’t recover. After trailing by 11 at halftime, fifth-year guard Leigha Brown missed a go-ahead bucket with five seconds remaining to seal the loss. Michigan got out-rebounded by the Rockets, shot 25% from 3-point range, and converted just 15 of 21 free throws.
It was, for all intents and purposes, a fluke. The Wolverines got out-worked by an inferior opponent and still almost won the game. Michigan’s assessment of the loss was clear: learn from it, then get back to business as usual.
But Phelia wasn’t quite so ready to move on.
In an emotional postgame press conference, Phelia appeared distraught — muttering about the lack of execution and the importance of improved team play moving forward.
“I just really wish we could have won,” she said under her breath.
Despite her clear frustration, Phelia had put together a strong performance against the Rockets — scoring a game-high 20 points along with eight rebounds and four steals. It was one of many strong showings to that point in a dominant sophomore season, throughout which she established herself as a top weapon for the Wolverines. Over the regular season, Phelia averaged nearly 17 points and four rebounds per game, all while guarding the opponents’ best player in every game.
Her performance against the Rockets showcased her progression into an elite guard since arriving in Ann Arbor. Her reaction to the loss showcased something different:
A commitment to excellence, and utter dissatisfaction with anything less.
Phelia’s overall prowess helped propel the Wolverines to one of the best starts in program history, and her impact as a scorer and defender showed each time she stepped on the court. Even more telling, though, was Michigan’s play in her absence. After Phelia suffered a lower leg injury against Minnesota Jan. 29, the Wolverines lost three of their final seven regular-season games — two against top programs in Indiana and Ohio State, and one in an upset against Wisconsin.
That injury sidelined Phelia for nearly a month, making her miss the remainder of Michigan’s regular season schedule and abbreviating a stellar sophomore campaign.
It also forced her to slow down.
“When it first happened my whole leg had to be stabilized for a couple weeks,” Phelia said. “So it was definitely hard. In the moment, I felt like, ‘What am I supposed to do?’”
Understanding her eagerness to play, the Wolverines’ coaching staff worked to stem her frustration by giving her stationary dribbling drills, challenging her to watch even more film and assigning her homework. Phelia says that the staff gave her Chop Wood Carry Water — a productivity book based on the iconic Zen proverb — to read while she rehabbed.
In the end, it was routine that got Phelia through the recovery process. Continuing to use her time in the early mornings to watch film, read or study provided a sense of normalcy amid the uncertainty of her timetable. Upon her return, that discipline paid off. On March 3, Phelia returned to action against Penn State in the Wolverines’ first game of the Big Ten Tournament. She played 22 minutes off the bench and made an instant impact — finishing with 13 points and helping Michigan eke out a nail-biter.
“She just changes the whole dynamic of our team,” Kiser said postgame. “ … It was great to have her back.”
Looking forward to the NCAA Tournament, Phelia’s ability to revert back to her pre-injury form and Michigan’s ability to re-establish its identity around her will be a deciding factor in its success. But regardless of her postseason performance, the story of her sophomore year will be one of strong individual development and an ascension into collegiate basketball’s upper echelon of athletes — along with elevating the performance of everyone around her, too.
Six years after Phelia’s mom started dragging her to five-o-clock bootcamps, that once-dreaded early morning work has become her staple. Now, she brings freshmen Kate Clarke and Alyssa Crockett with her in those early hours — though they might not be as enthusiastic as she is.
For Phelia, incorporating teammates into her morning ritual represents part of a commitment to the next phase of her evolution as a player: taking up the helm of leadership currently held by players like Kiser and Brown, and Naz Hillmon before them.
“That’s my biggest thing with next year,” Phelia said. “Trying to find my voice and become more of a leader.”
Phelia leaned on the leadership of Kiser, Brown, Hillmon and others throughout her first two years in Ann Arbor, often relying on guidance from the veterans both on and off the court. But looking ahead to next season, with many of her mentors graduated, she’s eager for her turn to continue that legacy by passing those lessons forward.
“I want to be able to do that for the freshmen coming in and the rest of my teammates,” Phelia said.
Phelia’s legacy as a Wolverine is already well underway — she made second-team all-Big Ten this past season after finishing second in points per game on her team, and drew the attention of opposing coaches around the country for her stout defense. But to Phelia’s coaches and teammates, those successes are steps in her continuing development — nowhere near her full potential.
“The sky’s the limit for Laila,” Cincinnati Angels coach Dante Harlan, Phelia’s former AAU coach, told the Daily. “She’s still acting on natural ability. She hasn’t figured out that she’s one of the best players in the country.”
Phelia will likely be the top player on Michigan’s roster next season, and she’s still building her legacy in Ann Arbor. But her prospects don’t end with the Wolverines. Her ceiling is much higher, and she has the potential to excel at the next level.
“She’s definitely a WNBA player,” Rogers said. “If that’s what she wants to do. I think that’s just up to Laila, but she’s definitely gonna have WNBA talent, no question about that.”
Regardless of where she ends up, though, those closest to her know that she’ll never stop improving.
“She has so much improvement to go,” Bransford said. “Nobody really expected her to be this talented this early. But that’s just Laila for you.”
Behind each testimonial is an understanding of Phelia’s tenacious commitment to excellence. The commanding work ethic that transformed her from late bloomer to top prospect to one of the Big Ten’s top players will undoubtedly continue to fuel her meteoric rise.
And no matter where her end goal is, it’s a sure thing that she’ll get there.
But only after some early morning film study, of course.