At Michigan Media Day on Oct. 25, while outlining the team’s typical tangible goals of championships and tournament runs, Michigan coach Kim Barnes Arico emphasized another — one that’s less measurable, but one she sets every year:
“We’re going to be the hardest working team in America,” Barnes Arico said.
And so far this season, the No. 14 Michigan women’s basketball team has been defined by its hard work. The Wolverines’ intensity on both sides of the ball has been the difference maker in every game they’ve played and visible in veterans and newcomers alike. That piece of their identity has contributed to their 9-0 start to the season, and has helped maintain a standard that defines their program.
Above all, two Michigan players have made especially extensive strides from last season in terms of tangible improvement: graduate forward Emily Kiser and sophomore guard Laila Phelia. The two have been the Wolverines best two-way players to start the season, each improving as better shooters, scorers and defenders this year.
Phelia, in particular, has made huge improvements in terms of her shooting.
“(Phelia) wants to be the best player in the world,” Barnes Arico said on Nov. 9. “She is always in the gym working on her game and she wants to be a three-dimensional scorer, working to score from all three levels. Knocking down that three is one of the things she’s worked really really hard on (in the offseason).”
By developing into a threat from 3-point range, she’s added a new element to Michigan’s offense. Against Northwestern last weekend, when she hit two second-half threes to help pull away from the Wildcats, that was on full display.
“I feel like the biggest thing after hitting one of those big threes is that it brings everyone’s momentum up,” Phelia said after beating Northwestern on Dec. 4. “Just knowing that we got the lead, and that it’s not over yet.”
That momentum, spurred by shooting, leads the Wolverines to work harder. In a close game versus No. 19 Baylor on Nov. 27, with a championship on the line in the Gulf Coast Invitational, Michigan eked out a victory thanks to hustle plays —
Many of which came from Phelia.
Steals and fast break layups proved to be the difference in that contest — and they are proving to be an essential piece of the Wolverines’ path to victory on any given night.
Whether or not that hardworking approach stems from Phelia or Kiser, or is a byproduct of Barnes Arico’s program-building crusade, the tenacity leading to those game-breaking moments has been contagious.
Another player proving to embody that unrelenting spirit is senior wing Leigha Brown. Coming into the season, she was touted as a key piece to building off the program’s previous success. In three close contests against Baylor, Miami and Northwestern, her hard work to reach those expectations has led to wins in each, despite her routine statline.
Brown has proven herself as the root of Michigan’s energy as it heads into conference play. She consistently out-hustles opponents and injects intensity into her team with her high-energy approach late in games.
“We have some really tough teams (on our schedule),” Brown said on Dec. 4. “And we’ve gotta bring it every night.”
So far they have. And others are clearly embodying that mentality: Sophomore guard Jordan Hobbs and freshman forward Alyssa Crockett have each played meaningful minutes in recent contests. The two have quickly developed into valuable bench pieces for Barnes Arico, adding key depth to the roster.
Entering the season, Brown, Phelia and Kiser were expected to be contributors to the Wolverines’ campaign. The surprising element of their success, though, is the development of the young talent that surrounds them into program-elevating players.
The success of young players in Michigan’s program is further testament to its commitment towards hard work. And that goal set during the preseason isn’t just leading the Wolverines to another impressive start — it’s driving their improvement as a program.