Tied with under a minute to go in the Sweet 16 last season, the Michigan women’s basketball team turned to then-freshman guard Laila Phelia. Standing at the top of the key with seven seconds on the shot clock, she put her head down and drove to the basket, sinking the layup to give the Wolverines a lead that they never relinquished.
That ability to score — seemingly at will — was a talent Phelia had been showcasing in spurts all season. Finishing at the rim and hitting pull-up jump shots was her bread and butter, and when she was consistent, guarding Phelia became an onerous task.
There was just one part of her game that lagged behind the rest: 3-point shooting.
Phelia never made more than two 3-pointers in a single game last season and shot just 28% on 54 attempts from beyond the arc. Compared to the rest of the team, that wasn’t second-rate — both her percentage and makes were fourth-best for the Wolverines. But compared to the rest of Phelia’s game, and the rest of the country, there was room for improvement.
And through two games this season, that improvement has been monumental.
Phelia has sunk seven of her nine 3-point attempts, including a perfect 3-3 in now-No. 23 Michigan’s victory Friday against Saint Francis (PA). It’s not just her ability to shoot that has improved, but her confidence and willingness to take those shots, too.
“(The 3-pointer) has been my biggest focus for offense,” Phelia said on Nov. 9 after a win against Delaware State. “Because you know, last year, I just drove the ball a lot. And I feel like on everyone’s scouting report, they’re gonna lay off and everything. So I feel like if I can be able to consistently knock that down, to some extent, then it’ll help us a lot.”
Although the Red Flash and the Hornets aren’t the strongest competition, and the Wolverines are only two games into the season, this improvement doesn’t seem to be a fluke. Rather, it’s a result of the work that Phelia put in over the offseason.
“She’ll probably be in the gym tomorrow morning at 7 AM,” Michigan coach Kim 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 where she can score from all three levels. And knocking down that three consistently is one of the things she really wanted to improve on and she’s worked incredibly hard.”
That extra work has already paid dividends: Phelia made the Big Ten women’s basketball weekly honor roll in the opening week of the season, totaling 41 points and nine rebounds through the first two games of the season.
When she was locked in last year, Phelia was notably difficult for opponents to guard. They had to protect against the drive, while also being able to quickly step forward if Phelia stopped short for a jump shot. But if she continues to shoot the 3-pointer at levels close to the percentage she’s shooting at right now — a whopping 78 percent — she’s going to frustrate whichever unlucky defender the Wolverines’ opponents task with guarding her.
Shooting the three this well makes Phelia a nightmare to defend, but more than that, it opens up possibilities for the entire offense. With defenders being forced to guard her much more closely when she’s beyond the arc, there are fewer players available to help off the ball and the offense can spread the floor more easily.
For a Michigan team that’s planning on relying a lot more on outside shooting this year, Phelia’s growth can’t be overstated.
Because if she keeps shooting this well at all three levels, opponents won’t have many options. If defenders lay off, Phelia will make them pay from downtown. If defenders play tight defense, Phelia can beat them off the dribble and show off both her midrange shot and her ability to finish at the rim.
At this rate, the only thing opposing coaches will be sure to do while looking at their scouting report is scratch their heads.