How Notre Dame freshman point guard Hannah Hidalgo is putting the country on notice

STORRS, CT - JANUARY 27: UConn Huskies guard Nika Muhl (10) and Notre Dame Fighting Irish guard Hannah Hidalgo (3) battle for the loose ball during the women's college basketball game between Notre Dame Fighting Irish and UConn Huskies on January 27, 2024, at Harry A. Gampel Pavilion in Storrs, CT. (Photo by M. Anthony Nesmith/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)
Notre Dame's Hannah Hidalgo locks in on UConn guard Nika Muhl during their game Jan. 27, 2024, at Harry A. Gampel Pavilion in Storrs, CT. (Photo by M. Anthony Nesmith/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images) (Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

It’s not the steal itself, or even the ensuing fast-break layup that excites Hannah Hidalgo.

It’s the following possession.

The one where she can sense discomfort in her opponents. Suddenly they’re aware of Hidalgo’s predator eyes trained on the ball. They see her thieving hands, her shuffling feet, and they know it’s hopeless.

When she clocks that defeated look, Hidalgo knows she’s won the matchup.

“It definitely hits their heart when they’re dribbling and you’re able to pick their pocket,” Hidalgo said with a wry smile. “It’s heart crushing.”

And on the court, that’s what Hidalgo lives for.

The Notre Dame freshman has always been a lockdown defender. When she was younger, Hidalgo’s offense was still developing. She was a pass-first guard who didn’t score a lot of points, but she made sure her opponent didn’t score either.

These days, her offensive production has caught up with her defense. Hidalgo averages 25 points per game and 5.7 assists, in addition to her NCAA-leading 5.2 steals per game. But she still exudes a little extra energy on the defensive end.

When Hidalgo first started playing basketball, she remembers hearing the old coaching cliché, “Offense wins games, but defense wins championships.”

It stuck with her.

“Defense is who I am,” she said. “I take pride in my defense.”

It’s that added intensity that not only sets Hidalgo apart from her peers, but has already elevated her into conversations about Notre Dame greats. Players like Skylar Diggins-Smith, Arike Ogunbowale, Jewell Loyd and Jackie Young.

Now, just three months into her young career, Hannah Hidalgo’s name has been added to the list.

There is a lot of pressure that comes with playing point guard at Notre Dame. A legacy of elite floor generals has taken the court for the Fighting Irish, including current Notre Dame coach Niele Ivey.

So when Ivey started looking for a point guard to sign from the 2023 class, she was seeking a certain kind of player. The kind who doesn’t feel pressure.

Hannah Hidalgo rarely has. And as soon as Ivey watched the New Jersey native, her point guard search was over.

“What she brought was different,” Ivey said. “She’s a dog. She’s the hardest worker on the floor. She just had this swag and confidence about her that I thought separated her from everyone else on the floor.”

That confidence was born out of necessity. Hidalgo grew up with four brothers, and they all played basketball. Her dad is a longtime coach who coached her in high school, and her mom is a referee. Basketball was always around, and her opponents were always boys, whether competing in the family driveway or at the rec center, with the team her dad coached.

At first, she didn’t care much for the sport, but she did have her eye on something else: blue Gatorade. The taste of blue raspberry electrolytes was all the motivation little Hannah needed to participate in the family sport. Eventually, she developed a true passion for basketball – “It was inevitable,” she said – and after that, the Hidalgos couldn't keep her out of the gym.

Orlando Hidalgo noticed his daughter separating herself from her peers in the fourth grade. She was winning league MVP awards playing alongside people like D.J. Wagner, who is now a freshman standout for the Kentucky men’s team.

SOUTH BEND, IN - JANUARY 25: Notre Dame Fighting Irish guard Hannah Hidalgo (3) goes up for a layup during a college basketball game between the Syracuse Orange and the Notre Dame Fighting Irish on January 25, 2024 at Purcell Pavilion in South Bend, Indiana. (Photo by Joseph Weiser/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)
Notre Dame Fighting Irish guard Hannah Hidalgo is coming into her own as an offensive force. (Photo by Joseph Weiser/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images) (Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

Hidalgo is small by today’s point guard standard. Schools across the country have guards like JuJu Watkins and Caitlin Clark, standing 6 feet tall. Hidalgo is just 5-foot-6. Her size has never been an issue, and even against stronger and taller opponents as a kid, Hidalgo’s IQ and speed won out.

“When it was just me against all the boys, they were extremely physical with me,” Hidalgo said. “They were never easy on me, so that gave me a chip on my shoulder. It gave me the grit I have now.”

She became a master at using angles to finish around defenses, developing a bag of tricks that includes floaters, midrange pullups and swooping layups that sneak under the outstretched hands of opponents who are sometimes a foot taller than she is.

Her playbook traces back to the early days at her New Jersey rec center, and the brothers who beat up on her.

“Three of my brothers are older and stronger, and then the younger one, he’s 6-4, and he’s built,” she said. “So me being so small, I had to find ways to score over them and find ways to stay low when I attack because they are shifty.”

Those small moments, dominated by a small girl, prepared Hidalgo for the big moments to come. The ones that have become mainstays of her career.

Like when she was named New Jersey Gatorade Player of the Year. Or when she scored a between-the-legs and-1 layup on Watkins at the Slam Summer Classic. Like when she was tabbed as the 2023 USA Basketball Female Athlete of the Year.

Or when she stepped onto the court in a Notre Dame jersey for the first time and immediately put the college basketball world on notice by scoring 31 points against South Carolina.

But before any of that, there was one moment from Hidalgo’s high school career at Paul VI High School in New Jersey that defines who she is on the court.

Hidalgo sat in the locker room at halftime of a playoff game against Red Bank Catholic High School, a team that boasted players like Justin Pissott (now at Vanderbilt) and Ally Carman (now at Iona). It was a close game, and Orlando knew his team needed to turn the pressure up. That’s a task Hannah is always up for.

So, to start the second half, she picked up Red Bank Catholic’s point guard full court and instantly stripped the ball for a layup.

Two points for Hidalgo.

On the next possession she did it again.

Two more points.

And then a third time.

Two more points.

On the fourth possession, the Red Bank Catholic guards were actively avoiding the inbounds pass. No one wanted to bring the ball up. Hidalgo had that look in her eyes – the “game over” look – and Paul VI ended up winning by 19 points.

“She’s like Michael Jordan,” Ivey said. “He loved defense. He was defensive and offensive player of the year. So when you actually have the will and the desire to play defense, it's a much different sort of competitive nature.”

As a senior in high school, Hidalgo averaged 7.3 steals per game. Her efforts received plenty of praise, but the compliments were almost always presented with a caveat.

“I had a lot of people tell me, ‘Well, she won’t be able to do that in college,”’ Orlando said.

But she is.

Hidalgo leads the country in steals with 97 (5.1 per contest), which is 15 more than the next highest total. She also set the Notre Dame steals record for a freshman – with 13 games left in the regular season.

And her reputation as a lockdown defender doesn’t just terrify the NCAA. It’s a common point of discussion among Notre Dame’s scout team as well.

CJ Naudet, a mechanical engineering grad student at Notre Dame, is often tasked with playing against Hidalgo in practice. He’s been on the scout team for three years, but no one has brought the defensive intensity that she does.

“It’s not fun to guard her, or be guarded by her, as you can imagine,” he said with a laugh.

Naudet looks forward to game days because it means Hidalgo is stealing the ball from someone else.

“She guards the best player on the opposing team and completely changes their game,” he said. “And it’s not just a steal. It’s usually a layup on top of that. It makes you weary because you know it’s going to happen again.”

Hidalgo was ranked as the fifth-best prospect in the class of 2023 by ESPN’s Hoopgurlz. She had plenty of offers and considered places like Michigan, Duke, Stanford and Ohio State before signing with the Irish.

Ultimately, Hidalgo chose Notre Dame because of Ivey and Olivia Miles.

Passion is a key part of Hidalgo’s game. She exudes it and surrounds herself with people who do the same. Even in a crowded gym she can always hear her mom yelling from the stands and her dad’s patented whistle echoing onto the court.

After being coached by her dad in high school, Hidalgo wanted someone with the same fire to coach her at the college level. She also needed someone who would let her have freedom on the court. Ivey fit the bill.

But it was the idea of playing alongside Miles that solidified Hidalgo’s decision.

The two are similar players. They’re both pass-first guards that use creativity and smarts to run an offense. Miles is sitting out this season with an injury, but when Hidalgo committed to Notre Dame, she assumed the junior would be playing.

Hidalgo wasn’t concerned about competing with Miles for playing time, or even about potentially sliding over into the two-guard position. Instead, she saw playing side-by-side as a positive.

“You need multiple elite point guards to win a championship,” she said matter of factly.

When Notre Dame opened its season in Paris, Hidalgo wasn’t nervous. It was an odd feeling, especially because throughout high school and AAU, her stomach fluttered before every tipoff. But here she was, about to play South Carolina, and Hidalgo felt nothing but excitement. It was like this moment was predestined for her.

“I just felt blessed,” she said.

SOUTH BEND, INDIANA - JANUARY 7: Hannah Hidalgo #3 of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish drives to the basket during the game against the North Carolina Tar Heels at Joyce Center on January 7, 2024 in South Bend, Indiana. (Photo by Michael Hickey/Getty Images)
Hannah Hidalgo of Notre Dame drives to the basket against North Carolina at the Joyce Center on Jan. 7, 2024, in South Bend, Indiana. (Photo by Michael Hickey/Getty Images) (Michael Hickey via Getty Images)

A few months prior, Hidalgo was playing for USA basketball’s U19 team at the FIBA World Cup in Madrid. The team advanced to the championship, taking on Spain, who had a raucous crowd of supporters. There were 7,000 fans at the game, and all but a few parents and coaches were supporting the home team.

Ivey attended that game and watched as Hidalgo recorded 9 points, 7 assists, 4 rebounds, 3 steals and a block, helping Team USA to a 69-66 victory.

“That was the craziest, hardest environment that I’ve seen in a long time,” Ivey said. “She was phenomenal. She had so much poise, and the stage was not too big for her.”

Still, Ivey wasn’t sure what to expect from Hidalgo when Notre Dame played South Carolina because even the most prepared freshmen are still freshmen.

“I knew she was ready, but I didn’t know how ready,” Ivey said.

Notre Dame lost 100-71 in a lopsided South Carolina victory, but even in the defeat, Hidalgo emerged as the star of the game, leading all scorers with 31 points, 4 rebounds, 3 assists and 3 steals.

“She was even more fearless than I expected,” Ivey said. “No jitters at all. She was ready for all the smoke.”

It wasn’t a fluke, either.

Hidalgo has consistently been the best player on the court for Notre Dame this season.

It doesn’t get much bigger than Connecticut, a program that has set the standard in women’s college basketball with 11 titles.

Three months after her heroic debut, Hidalgo put forth another herculean effort, and this time it led to an upset of UConn on Jan. 27.

The Fighting Irish were down by 12 in the first half, and Gampel Arena was overflowing with UConn pride, as the school honored two previous NCAA tournament winning teams. Breanna Stewart cheered in the student section. Sue Bird chatted with Jason Sudeikis on the sidelines, and Diana Taurasi hopped on the broadcast with Gus Johnson and Stephanie White to discuss the greats of the game.

Hidalgo proved herself to be one of them.

The freshman played 40 minutes and finished with 34 points, 10 rebounds and 6 assists.

“It took a lot of guts for her to come in here and do what she did,” UConn coach Geno Auriemma told reporters after the game. “She's damn good, right? Yeah.”

Even that might be an understatement.