Sports

Brown shines in Phelia’s absence, pushing Michigan past Illinois


Throughout the season, the No. 18 Michigan women’s basketball team’s offensive attack has been anchored by the backcourt duo of sophomore guard Laila Phelia and fifth-year wing Leigha Brown. The two dynamic scorers have dictated the Wolverines’ success so far, driving their offense as leading scorers and facilitators. 

So when Phelia was ruled out of Thursday’s matchup with a lower leg injury, Michigan’s chances appeared in question. 

But in Phelia’s absence, Brown willed the Wolverines to a 74-57 victory over Illinois, posting one of her strongest statlines of the season. Even while finishing the night with 27 points on 76% shooting, her success went beyond scoring: Brown scored at an efficient rate while moving the ball well and limiting costly turnovers. That well-rounded statline propelled Michigan’s victory, and set Thursday’s performance apart from other recent strong outings. 

Immediately, Brown made her presence felt, shooting an unreal 6-for-6 through two quarters with 15 points and four assists. After trading blows with the Fighting Illini early, Michigan pulled away thanks to a monster offensive stretch in the second quarter — a 15-0 run driven by Brown as both a scorer and facilitator. 

She scored four of the run’s first seven points, then capped off the stretch with a laser overhead pass to junior forward Elise Stuck. After Stuck’s layup fell and a foul was called, Brown erupted — flexing as she spun to face the raucous Michigan bench.

“She feeds off of anything the other team is giving her,” Stuck said postgame. “You see the emotion that she plays with and I think that’s something that’s so special about her.”

Brown’s ability to make tough shots has been the lifeblood of the Michigan offense this year. But on Thursday, she seemed to find an extra gear with Phelia sidelined. Time and time again — no matter the situation — Brown scored at will over the Illini defense. Whether it was a circus layup or a turnaround jumper, she had no trouble producing offense for herself. 

“Leigha knows what she needs to do when she goes out there and she knew she needed to produce tonight,” sophomore guard Jordan Hobbs said. “She embraces every moment she has on the court. … We can count on her to score like 25, 30 (points) per game. That’s just a given, we have so much confidence in her and she does in herself.”

But what might’ve been just as important was her ability to produce for her teammates.

Brown is a natural wing. But this season she’s served as a point guard for the Wolverines, who started the year with no starting-caliber option at the position. The transition hasn’t been perfect, but she put together her best outing yet against Illinois, finishing with five assists. 

Brown looked comfortable finding teammates, moving the ball with ease in both-full-and-half-court sets. But what made this performance stand out from the rest was her ability to find teammates consistently without turning the ball over — she finished with five assists to only one giveaway.

“She was pretty awesome,” Michigan coach Kim Barnes Arico said. “She really moved the ball well … her confidence is growing, her fitness level is growing, and she’s playing at an incredibly high level right now.” 

In Phelia’s absence, Brown played 37 minutes — a Herculean effort against a tough Illinois team. Her brief rest came in the third quarter, when the Illini mounted their sole attempt at a comeback. In that stretch, the Michigan offense suffered without her. 

But Brown righted the ship, scoring eight fourth-quarter points and putting the game well out of reach in its final minutes. Through her, the Wolverines quelled any possibility of an Illini comeback and earned their strongest conference win of the season — all without their leading scorer. 

And through that monumental showing, Brown answered any questions about Michigan’s chances.

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