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Notre Dame’s Hannah Hidalgo rides a star-making season to individual awards, ACC title

Notre Dame head coach Niele Ivey, right, talks with Hannah Hidalgo, left, during the first half against NC State in an NCAA basketball game for the Women's Atlantic Coast Conference championship in Greensboro, N.C., Sunday, March 10, 2024. (AP Photo/Chuck Burton)

GREENSBORO, N.C. (AP) — Hannah Hidalgo doesn’t hesitate, whether she’s got the ball in her hands to attack off a screen or stalking a ballhandler eager to pick her pocket for a steal.

It’s why Hidalgo is stacking awards in a stellar freshman season, one that has carried No. 14 Notre Dame to its first Atlantic Coast Conference Tournament title in five years — and maybe positioned her to be an I-got-next face of the women’s game as Iowa superstar Caitlin Clark exits for the WNBA.

“She loves this game so she just wants to compete,” Notre Dame coach Niele Ivey said Sunday, “so everything that’s coming her way is because of what she’s been able to accomplish and do.”

The 5-foot-6 guard came up big down the stretch to help the Fighting Irish beat No. 10 North Carolina State in Sunday’s ACC title game, including the final go-ahead basket on the way to becoming the tournament’s most valuable player. It capped a week Hidalgo being named the ACC freshman and defensive player of the year.

Next comes the NCAA Tournament, where Hidalgo seems ready for the March spotlight. She’s saying the right things, at the very least.

“All credit to my teammates because I wouldn’t be able to do it without them, too,” she said in Sunday’s postgame news conference. “It’s truly a blessing just to be here in this position.”

Yet Hidalgo stands out, even as she talks like someone trying to blend in.

She started the season with 31 points in an opening-day loss to No. 1 South Carolina, had 34 points in a win over Connecticut and hit a season-high 35 points in a win against Georgia Tech. She’s ranked third nationally in scoring (trailing Clark and fellow frosh JuJu Watkins at USC) while leading the country at 4.7 steals per game.

“We knew before she even played a game,” junior guard Sonia Citron said. “Just when she came in in the summer, she just has a different mentality. So in workouts, in practices, we kind of just knew she was going to be special.

“She’s just different. I don’t even know what to say.”

She closed the ACC Tournament with 22 points, six rebounds and six assists, marking her third tournament game in as many days with that exact rebound and assist output. Yet in a game with both teams grinding to a tough finish, she made two huge plays down the stretch to finally wrestle control

On the first, with her team locked in a 49-all tie, Hidalgo hit a hanging layup over the Wolfpack’s Aziaha James at the 2:24 mark as the trailer on a transition chance. The Wolfpack answered with Madison Hayes’ layup to tie it, but Hidalgo struck again.

This time, Hidalgo dribbled around a high screen at the arc to get a step on James as the defender tried to go over the screener. That gave Hidalgo the chance to drive downhill against the less-mobile River Baldwin inside.

Hidalgo got Baldwin backpedaling deeper into the paint with a stutter-step and crossover dribble, then hitting a a scooping layup while falling to the ground for the 53-51 lead with 1:28 left.

“So we noticed the ball-screen was working, so we kind of cleared out and spaced out and just put Baldwin in a ball screen,” Hidalgo said. “And if they collapsed, the kickout for the shooter was open. And if not, then it was a 1-on-1 for the drive.”

The Fighting Irish didn’t hesitate to let Hidalgo read and go.

“I learned to just kind of have confidence in myself,” Hidalgo said. “Right when I came in, they were like, ‘Hannah, shoot the ball. Hannah, score the ball.’ That was really big for me. … The trust they instill in me is just amazing.”

Plays like those are the kind that have made Hidalgo a rising star, just in time for a sport that is on the lookout for more.

Women’s college basketball has experienced a rise in popularity amid Clark’s run to the Division I scoring record — men’s or women’s — with her dazzling floor game. But with Clark heading to the pros after this season, the sport is on the lookout for the next wave of talents to carry that momentum forward.

Players like Hidalgo and Watkins are poised to be candidates for those spotlight-grabbing roles, both for their talent and as rookies with multiple years of college eligibility ahead to grow their games and maybe capture the public’s imagination.

Ivey figures Hidalgo can handle it, too.

“It’s not something that she seeks,” Ivey said. “Like (Citron) says, she’s different. She has a light about her. … It is a lot for a freshman, and I think she’s done a phenomenal job of handling it.”