Niele Ivey is careful about comparisons. Like most of her peers, the Notre Dame coach wants every player to have the chance to be herself.

But Ivey said she can't help but liken freshman Hannah Hidalgo to a certain Irish legend.

"Everybody has something special about them," Ivey said. "With Hannah, her energy, her passion, her fearlessness, her confidence, her competitiveness, her will to win -- those are all ways she is like Skylar."

Skylar Diggins-Smith led Notre Dame to three consecutive Final Four appearances from 2011-13. A two-time Nancy Lieberman Award winner as the nation's top point guard, Diggins-Smith finished her Notre Dame career as the program's all-time scoring and steals leader, and ranked second all-time in assists, before being selected third overall in the 2013 WNBA draft (behind Brittney Griner and Elena Delle Donne).

"Skylar came in and changed the program -- the way she attacked offensively, how she defended 94 feet," Ivey added. "Skylar was completely ready for the collegiate game ASAP as a freshman."

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Hidalgo has proven she is ready, too, and with two other guards sidelined with injury, Notre Dame needed her immediate impact. Olivia Miles, a second-team AP All-American in 2022-23, has yet to play this season as she continues to rehab a knee injury suffered last March, and Sonia Citron, an All-ACC First Team pick last season, has been limited to three games.

Through 11 games, Hidalgo leads Notre Dame in scoring (24.5), assists (6.2), steals (a Division I-best 6.1) and minutes played (33.4), and ranks second in rebounding (6.3) despite being just 5-foot-6.

Hidalgo had her first triple-double -- just the 12th in program history -- on Dec. 21 vs. Western Michigan. She is on pace to break a 30-year-old Notre Dame freshman scoring average record and obliterate the rookie steals record.

Upset Sunday at Syracuse, the No. 18 Irish look to bounce back at Pitt on Thursday (6 p.m. ET, ACC Network) and versus North Carolina on Sunday (5 p.m. ET, ESPN2/ESPN App), with hoops fans nationwide eager to see what Hidalgo will do next.

"I didn't really come with any expectations," Hidalgo said. "I'm just out here having fun."

Matt Cashore-USA TODAY Sports

Hidalgo is one of many freshmen around the country who have taken center stage this season. USC's JuJu Watkins ranks second in the nation (Hidalgo is third) in points per game and has five 30-point performances. South Carolina's MiLaysia Fulwiley wowed the likes of Magic Johnson with a behind-the-back layup on the opening day of the season and continues to be a jaw-dropping ball handler and slasher. And Iowa State center Audi Crooks is one of the country's most accurate shooters.

Hidalgo has an all-around game, but especially takes pride in her defensive impact.

"Dynamic is the best word for her," said Ivey, who was a senior point guard on Notre Dame's 2001 national championship team. "She can score at all three levels and has great body control. She reads defenses and finishes so well. Defensively, she's been able to absorb our concepts and philosophy.

"Sometimes it takes players a few years to truly understand rotations and team defense. She's picked it up so fast."

Matt Cashore-USA TODAY Sports

The Notre Dame freshman record for average steals (2.7) was set by Ruth Kaiser in 1981-82. Diggins-Smith set the total steals record for an Irish rookie (90) in 2009-10. Hidalgo, who has 67 steals this season, is on pace to shatter both.

"I give her a lot of freedom, because she deserves it," said Ivey, who was an assistant coach for the Irish from 2007-19 and took over as head coach when Muffet McGraw retired after the 2019-20 season. "She values defense. She does take some risks and gambles, but they work. We've learned how to play off of her, and I give the team credit for that. I let her go, and we've adjusted our defense to match her energy."

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Hidalgo might be a freshman, but WNBA coaches have already taken notice. She's the latest star for a program that has a well-earned reputation for top-notch guards at the professional level and has been nicknamed "Guard U" in the WNBA. Just last season, for example, the Seattle Storm's Jewell Loyd led the league in scoring, Jackie Young won her second consecutive title with the Las Vegas Aces and Arike Ogunbowale led the Dallas Wings to WNBA semifinals.

Diggins-Smith, who didn't play in the WNBA this past season but is expected to return in 2024, averaged 13.8 points and 3.2 assists as a freshman in 2009-10, when she set the still-standing Notre Dame freshman record with 111 free throws made.

That record might be out of reach for Hidalgo (45 free throws), but she is also on course to break Beth Morgan's program mark for highest scoring average as an Irish freshman (17.9 PPG in 1993-94).

No matter what else happens, Hidalgo's rookie season is already a success. Just as Ivey expected. She was on hand to watch Hidalgo play for USA Basketball over the summer in Madrid and was reassured that the freshman would be able to take the reins quickly for the Irish.

Hidalgo led the U.S. team to the FIBA U19 Women's World Cup title, averaging 10.7 points and 5.4 assists. In December, she was named USA Basketball's 5-on-5 Female Athlete of the Year.

"I was at her games, and she rose to the occasion over there," Ivey said of watching Hidalgo in Spain. "She was so poised, and I knew: 'She's gonna be fine with us.' It gave me a good glimpse of what has happened here."