March 14, 2024 

Catching fire: Behind Hannah Hidalgo’s legendary rookie season

Needless to say, the ACC Tournament wasn’t her first time making headlines

Notre Dame guard Hannah Hidalgo made headlines last weekend when she led her team to an ACC championship in her first conference tournament. The freshman scored a team-leading 22 points — including the five points in the last two and a half minutes that iced the 55-51 win — and six assists in the title game against No. 11 NC State and was named the ACC Tournament MVP for her efforts that weekend.

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Needless to say, the ACC Tournament wasn’t Hidalgo’s first time making headlines. 

“Hannah is a special player,” said Notre Dame guard Sonia Citron after the championship game. “We knew before she even played a game. Just when she came in in the summer, she just had a different mentality, so in workouts, in practices, we kind of just knew she was going to be special.”

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Hidalgo took NCAA basketball by storm in her rookie season. The freshman phenom currently leads the nation in steals per game at 4.59 and averages 23.3 points per game, the third-best mark in the nation behind Iowa’s Caitlin Clark and Southern California’s JuJu Watkins

For the Haddonfield, New Jersey, native, pursuing basketball was inevitable. Hidalgo’s parents — her father, Orlando and her mother, Tamara — have both coached basketball since she was a little kid, and her father still coaches the girls varsity team at Paul VI High School. He took that job in 2021 and coached Hannah through her junior and senior seasons. Before coaching Paul IV, her father coached the boys program at Life Center Academy. 

Hidalgo got her start in a boys’ rec league when she was in elementary school. In addition to her parents, she had plenty of mentors to guide her along the way. Her three older brothers all loved the game, and she often looked up to the players that her dad coached. She also recalls often working out with her cousin — who went on to play Division III basketball — and modeling her game after his.

“I was inspired by how aggressive he played and all the passion that he brought to the game and all the energy he had,” Hidalgo told The Next

Hidalgo’s high school career was nothing short of awe-inspiring. Throughout her time at Paul IV, she was named South Jersey Player of the Year three times and the 2023 New Jersey Gatorade Player of the Year. She scored 2,135 career points even with interruptions due to the COVID-19 pandemic. On the national stage, Hidalgo won gold with Team USA in the 2022 U17 FIBA Women’s Basketball World Championship and was a critical part of Team USA’s gold-medal-winning game in the 2023 FIBA U19 World Championship.

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In the 2023 McDonald’s All-American game, Hidalgo tallied a record-setting 26 points and tied the game record with eight steals. She was named co-MVP alongside Watkins, and with her inspiring performance, she gave spectators a glimpse into what she would go on to achieve at the Division I level. 

“I feel like it speaks on how versatile I am, and how I don’t just play one side of the game, I play both sides,” Hidalgo said. 

Before committing to Notre Dame in 2022, the No. 5 ESPN recruit was also considering offers from Duke, Michigan, Stanford, South Florida and Ohio State. Ultimately, though, Hidalgo knew that Notre Dame was the one due to the family environment that she felt welcomed into as soon as she stepped on campus for the first time.

“I was really looking for a place where I could have a family away from my family,” Hidalgo said. “I really saw that and I felt that here on the day that I came on my visit, so it was the obvious choice.”

Hidalgo emphasized that she holds family above all else, and she wanted to play with a college team that would nurture her love for basketball just like her family did throughout her childhood. She was adamant that she chose Notre Dame for more than just the strong academics and the historically strong basketball program. 

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Since then, Hidalgo has grown increasingly confident that she made the right choice — her teammates have been nothing but supportive from the get-go.

“They have a lot of trust in me,” Hidalgo said. “I learned to just have confidence in myself. Right when I came in, they were like, Hannah, shoot the ball, score the ball. That was really big for me.”

Hidalgo also stressed how well she fits with head coach Niele Ivey’s flexible style of offense. 

“I’m not tied down, so I feel like I can just play my game,” Hidalgo said. “I can go and gamble and get steals and just drive and attack one on one and just, you know, forget the offense and kind of just create for my team, setting ball screens and just kind of playing with a lot of freedom, which I really appreciate.”

Hidalgo’s high-level understanding of the game is apparent in the way that she can not only create for herself but also for her teammates to maximize the Irish’s scoring opportunities. 

Hidalgo described the transition from high school to college basketball as “relatively easy” — but that isn’t the case for most. The freshman credits her teammates and coaches for the smooth transition but also paid tribute to her New Jersey roots. 

“I think the Jersey/New York/Philly area, like we have this different type of grit, like a different type of dog,” Hidalgo said. “And I think just playing against that competition all my life has definitely prepared me for where I am at today.”

And well-prepared just might be an understatement — in her first collegiate game, Hidalgo scored a team-high 31 points against none other than No. 1 South Carolina.

“You know, I just felt so at ease. I wasn’t nervous at all. And I was really just excited to play my first collegiate game.”

Hidalgo carried that fearlessness and energy throughout the remainder of her rookie season, breaking records and collecting accolades left and right. The 12-time ACC Rookie of the Week and three-time ACC Player of the Week was recently named ACC Rookie of the Year — to no one’s surprise — and ACC Defensive Player of the Year. 

Hidalgo broke multiple ACC records, including the most points scored by a freshman, most steals and most ACC Rookie of the Week honors in a single season. She currently leads the nation in steals at 147, which she says is her proudest accomplishment. 

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Her defensive intensity and ability to attack the basket has plagued opposing teams all season, and her unbelievable speed has made her dangerous anywhere on the court. 

“She’s a really good player,” said Connecticut Sun guard Moriah Jefferson. “She’s got a really passionate game. She plays extremely hard every possession on defense and offense, and I think when you’re a smaller guard playing defense the way she does helps you a lot.”

With the NCAA Tournament drawing nearer, Hidalgo and the Irish have their sights set on a national championship. But Hidalgo, who’s continued to remain humble in the midst of all of her success, stressed that basketball is bigger than the championships and individual accolades. 

“Obviously, I want to win and just provide for my family, just be a light to those who are struggling and to be a person that kids can look up to,” said Hidalgo.

Written by Jenna Cuniowski

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