March 29, 2024 

Hannah Hidalgo’s journey is just beginning

Niele Ivey: 'She's never going to stop playing'

ALBANY — It had not been Hannah Hidalgo’s afternoon. The normally hyper-efficient point guard missed 14 of her first 16 shots in Notre Dame’s Sweet 16 matchup against Oregon State, struggling on everything from finishing at the rim to knocking down her midrange around screens. She’d even suffered an extended absence, officials forcing her to remove a nose piercing — at the start of the second quarter — to further upset her rhythm.

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No one would have blamed her if, for a young player who turned 19 just last month, the collective frustration had overwhelmed her. Her coach, Niele Ivey, called her over not once, not twice, but three times during the game, the meeting of the two seminal figures in this Irish program occurring within a tight embrace from Ivey with just over two minutes left in the third quarter.

“She was a little frustrated with a couple of her shots that normally go in,” Ivey said. “Just my conversations are just to empower her, lift her up, positive words of encouragement, knowing that [you’ve] just got to get to the next play, and it’s okay. The game is not perfect, and she knows that. Just trying to build confidence in her in any way that I can. I was trying to hug her… any moment she’s the type of player that can take over, so it was mostly just words of encouragement and positivity.”

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This time, she didn’t take over. Still, as the final minutes of Friday’s 70-65 loss ticked down, the true measure of just how astounding Hidalgo’s floor is as a player revealed itself, capping a season in which all who saw her marveled at her ceiling.

Donovyn Hunter, a fellow talented freshman, brought the ball up the floor. Hidalgo, who posted an otherworldly steal rate of 6% in her first season — fourth in the nation — tracked her every inch, agitating her and forcing her to slow, stop, restart until she’d achieved her objective, a 10-second call that animated Hidalgo’s wide smile, a child unwrapping her favorite present accomplished with an on-court maturity beyond her years.

“She’s going to give us her all,” Ivey said. “That’s what she loves — playing defense. That’s her money, her intensity defensively. She feeds off of being disruptive. Her shot wasn’t falling today, and I feel like she was trying to get herself going by being a pest on defense, and she got a couple backcourt violations, which is awesome. She’s never going to stop playing, regardless.”

Even this, a moment within a game that Hidalgo isn’t likely to re-watch anytime soon, represented growth in the meteoric rise of Hannah Hidalgo, according to her teammates.

“I think it speaks, honestly, to Hannah’s growth,” Irish junior Sonia Citron said. “I think earlier on in the season when she was frustrated offensively, it would just affect her game as a whole, and I think it shows how far Hannah has come as a freshman, where even though things weren’t going her way, she told us I’m going to give you everything I have on this possession, on the ball handler and she did just that, and she didn’t let it affect her defense. Honestly, I think it speaks to her growth as a person and as a player and as a teammate.”

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Even amid her struggles, the kind of skills that the 5’6 Hidalgo brings to the game were evident all afternoon. An early possession featured Hidalgo, firmly in command of the offense, barking out directions, and ultimately calling her own number, bouncing off an Oregon State defender to create the space necessary to finish at the rim.

And the mistakes, too, she owned — a foul just ahead of the horn ending the first quarter produced an immediate nod. There was no conversation between player and coach. Ivey knows there is no need to produce more internal motivation, more motor in Hannah Hidalgo, any more than she needs to find a way to increase her understanding of the game situation. It’s about encouraging Hidalgo to give herself time to get there, even as the precocious product of Merchantville, N.J., arrives so many places ahead of schedule — leading a six-woman rotation to an ACC tournament title, a two-seed and a Sweet 16 appearance by the age of 19.

Would a different application of the jewelry rules have changed the outcome on Friday? It’s hard to say. An extra four minutes of Hidalgo in a game ultimately decided by a handful of points feels determinative, even on a day she wasn’t the offensive self she’d been most of the season.

“Well, I didn’t know what happened, so I guess it was a point of emphasis in the Sweet 16 with jewelry and she’s had a nose ring the entire season,” Ivey said. “Just wish we would have known beforehand. Can’t control it, so we had to move on. But yeah, stoppage of play is never great when you’re trying to have flow.”

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When she returned, Hidalgo powered a 7-0 run once the painful extraction was complete, turning an Oregon State 25-22 lead into a Notre Dame 29-25 advantage, swinging the pass across the court to super-senior Anna DeWolfe for an in-rhythm three.

Even the plays that did not go in Notre Dame’s favor reveal Hidalgo’s gifts, whether it was racing across the floor to turn a 50-50 ball between one of her teammates and an Oregon State player into a ball she held or getting slammed to the floor by Raegan Beers, the immovable force for the Beavers all afternoon with eight inches on Hidalgo. But Hidalgo bounced right back up, never stopped attacking, and finished at the rim with under a minute to play, trimming Oregon State’s lead to 65-63.

It was only when the math was overwhelming that Hidalgo absorbed the truth of the season ending, her shoulders sagging at the 10-second mark. She pushed the tears aside, though, and knew she had to be a leader for her team in that moment. When the final buzzer sounded, it was Hidalgo running to DeWolfe, her career complete, who’d been playing college basketball since before the pandemic, before Hannah Hidalgo began her sophomore year of high school. Arm around DeWolfe’s waist, the pair made their way through the handshake line and into the tunnel.

For DeWolfe, a collegiate career was over. For Hannah Hidalgo, her college career and all that follows has just begun.

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Written by Howard Megdal

Howard is the founder of The Next and editor-in-chief.

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