Why freshman Hannah Hidalgo is already Notre Dame’s next star guard

Niele Ivey is careful with comparisons. Like most of her teammates, the Notre Dame coach wants every player to have the opportunity to be herself.

But Ivey said he can’t help but compare freshman Hannah Hidalgo to a certain Irish legend.

“Everyone has something special,” Ivey said. “With Hannah, her energy, her passion, her bravery, her confidence, her competitiveness, her will to win…those are all the ways she is like Skylar.”

Skylar Diggins-Smith led Notre Dame to three consecutive Final Four appearances from 2011 to 2013. Diggins-Smith, a two-time winner of the Nancy Lieberman Award as the nation’s top point guard, finished her career at Notre Dame as the leader of all times in scoring and steals, and ranked second all-time in assists, before being selected third overall. 2013 WNBA Draft (behind Brittney Griner and Elena Delle Donne).

“Skylar came in and changed the program: the way he attacked offensively, how he defended 94 feet,” Ivey added. “Skylar was completely ready for the college game as soon as possible when he was a freshman.”

Hidalgo has shown she’s ready too, and with two other guards sidelined by injuries, Notre Dame needed her immediate impact. Olivia Miles, a second-team AP All-American in 2022-23, has yet to play this season as she continues to rehab a knee injury suffered last March, and Sonia Citron, a first-team All-ACC selection last season, has been limited to three games.

Through 11 games, Hidalgo leads Notre Dame in scoring (24.5), assists (6.2), steals (6.1, best in Division I) and minutes played (33.4), and ranks second in rebounds (6.3 ) despite being only 5 feet tall. 6.

Hidalgo recorded his first triple-double, just the 12th in program history, on December 21 against Western Michigan. He is on pace to break the 30-year-old Notre Dame freshman record for scoring average and erase the rookie steals record.

Upset Sunday at Syracuse, the No. 18 Irish look to bounce back at Pitt on Thursday (6 p.m. ET, ACC Network) and against North Carolina on Sunday (5 p.m. ET, ESPN2/ESPN App), with basketball fans from around the country eager to see what Hidalgo will do next.

“I really didn’t come with any expectations,” Hidalgo said. “I’m just here having fun.”

Hidalgo is one of many freshmen from around the country who have taken center stage this season. USC’s JuJu Watkins ranks second nationally (Hidalgo is third) in points per game and has five 30-point performances. South Carolina’s MiLaysia Fulwiley wowed players like Magic Johnson with a behind-the-back layup on the first day of the season and continues to be an amazing ball handler and cutter. And Iowa State center Audi Crooks is one of the most accurate shooters in the country.

Hidalgo has a well-rounded game, but takes special pride in his defensive impact.

“Dynamic is the best word for her,” said Ivey, who was a senior point guard on Notre Dame’s 2001 national championship team. “She can score at all three levels and has great body control. She reads defenses and finishes very well. Defensively, he has been able to absorb our concepts and philosophy.

“Sometimes it takes players a few years to really understand the team’s rotations and defense. She has learned it very quickly.”

Notre Dame’s record for freshman steals average (2.7) was set by Ruth Kaiser in 1981-82. Diggins-Smith set the total steals record for an Irish rookie (90) in 2009-10. Hidalgo, who has 67 steals this season, is on pace to destroy both.

“I give him a lot of freedom, because he deserves it,” said Ivey, who was an Irish assistant coach from 2007 to 2019 and took over as head coach when Muffet McGraw retired after the 2019-20 season. “She values ​​defense. She takes some risks and gambles, but they work. We’ve learned to play with her and I give the team credit for that. I let her go and we adjusted our defense to match her energy.”

Hidalgo may be a freshman, but WNBA coaches have already taken notice. She is the latest star of a program that has a well-earned reputation as a top point guard at the professional level and has been nicknamed “Guard U” in the WNBA. Last season, for example, the Seattle Storm’s Jewell Loyd led the league in scoring, Jackie Young won her second straight title with the Las Vegas Aces and Arike Ogunbowale led the Dallas Wings to the WNBA semifinals.

Diggins-Smith, who did not play in the WNBA last season but is expected to return in 2024, averaged 13.8 points and 3.2 assists as a freshman in 2009-10, when she set Notre’s freshman record Give me that he still stands with 111 free throws made.

That record might be out of reach for Hidalgo (45 free throws), but she’s also on pace to break Beth Morgan’s program mark for highest scoring average as an Irish freshman (17.9 points per game in 1993- 94).

No matter what, Hidalgo’s rookie season is already a success. Just as Ivey expected. He was on hand to watch Hidalgo play for USA Basketball over the summer in Madrid and assured him that the freshman could quickly take the reins for the Irish.

Hidalgo led the US team to the FIBA ​​U19 Women’s World Cup title, averaging 10.7 points and 5.4 assists. In December, she was named USA Basketball’s Female 5-on-5 Athlete of the Year.

“I was at her games and she rose to the occasion,” Ivey said of watching Hidalgo in Spain. “She was so composed that I knew, ‘She’ll be fine with us.’ She gave me a good idea of ​​what’s happened here.”

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