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Notre Dame’s 16 Good Knees Make For One Impressive Team

Hannah Hidalgo #3 of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish celebrates at the half with a 17 point lead over the Ole Miss Rebels during the second round of the 2024 NCAA Women's Basketball Tournament held at Purcell Pavilion on March 25, 2024 in South Bend, Indiana.
Michael Hickey/NCAA Photos via Getty Images

The hardest job in sports is being the coach after The Coach. When Niele Ivey took the reins from Muffet McGraw at her alma mater, she inherited not only the weight of expectations but the Hall of Famer's bad luck, too. McGraw's 2018 team ended its national championship season having suffered more ACL tears (four) than losses (three). Ivey's program hasn't quite reached those levels of affliction and achievement, but the Irish made a valiant run to the Sweet Sixteen last year despite losing starting guards Dara Mabrey and Olivia Miles to season-ending knee injuries.

This year, the junior Miles has yet to return, and the attrition continues: Minutes after the Irish were given a two-seed in the NCAA tournament, Ivey announced that forward Kylee Watson had torn her ACL in the ACC tournament championship game, the same game Miles was injured in the year prior. “We're at a time that it's just survive and advance, so no matter how many numbers we have, you have to come prepared, ready to play,” Ivey said on Friday, before Notre Dame’s first-round game against Kent State.  

They're now down to eight available players in the tournament, but if they're at all panicked or feeling the weight, you couldn't tell in their comfortable second-round win over Ole Miss Monday afternoon. In fact, in a second round where some top seeds in the women's tournament looked a little janky—see: The Kiki Iriafen Show, just seven total assists for Iowa, a brief scare for UCLA—the Irish stood out for playing remarkably like a team.

Ivey has to lean heavily on her starters—there is only one bench player in the regular rotation now, and therefore no one else to lean on—and they've done admirable work under the pressure. When your All-ACC point guard must deal with a mysterious knee injury for most of the season, it helps to have Hannah Hidalgo stride onto campus and change your team's realistic outlook completely. The freshman guard was named to the All-American first team, a rare feat for a freshman in most years. She, junior wing Sonia Citron and senior forward Maddy Westbeld together form a “Big Three” that accounted for 56 of Notre Dame's 71 points against Ole Miss.

It might be a small blessing that the Notre Dame coaching staff had no choice but to let Hidalgo cook as lead guard this year. She brings a freshman's keenness to her game, always trying something creative with her handle or with her finish when she drives to the basket. Crucially, she does so without a freshman's tendency toward chaos. Instead, she walks the fine line between intensity and recklessness. “She's as advertised,” said Ole Miss head coach Yolett McPhee-McCuin after her team's loss. “I think one of the things that I appreciate with her is just her competitive spirit, and that's not something that you can teach. That's something that was born inside of her. She was completely relentless the whole time. Yeah, she can pass and she can score, but you can't teach what's inside of you.”

Rare may be the freshman named first-team All-American; rarer yet is the freshman guard named Defensive Player of the Year finalist. However fun Hidalgo is to watch on offense, she is just a little bit more fun to watch on the other end. She recorded six steals in her tournament debut against Kent State, and averages nearly five a game. It's in large part thanks to her that the Irish are the fifth-best defensive team in the country by Her Hoop Stats's defensive rating metric. To reach the Final Four, Notre Dame has two daunting tasks ahead of them: The starters will have to weather the heavy minutes load, and they'll likely have to manage an upset of a South Carolina team that's rolled its opponents in the tournament. But when she's locked in, I'd trust Hannah Hidalgo to steal anything.

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