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A group of elite freshmen shows the future of women’s basketball is bright

A group of elite freshmen shows the future of women’s basketball is bright

Tooba Shakir 54 years ago 0 1

ALBANY, N.Y. — Hannah Hidalgo sat back in a chair on the lower level of MVP Arena this week, surrounded by reporters, and held court. The Notre Dame freshman sported olive green-painted fingernails with a shamrock designed in the middle of each that perfectly matched her hoop earrings featuring a shamrock dangling off the bottom.

Several people meandered around the room, but the biggest crowd arced around the 19-year-old who led the Fighting Irish to the NCAA tournament’s Sweet 16 despite an injury-depleted roster.

While her tournament run ended Friday with Notre Dame’s 70-65 loss to Oregon State in an Albany Region 1 semifinal, Hidalgo secured her status as one of the faces of a youth movement that is ready to overtake women’s college basketball. She was a first-team all-American and the ACC defensive player of the year. Fellow freshman JuJu Watkins (Southern California) was also a first-team all-American, and Madison Booker (Texas) was a second-team selection and the Big 12 player of the year. Audi Crooks (Iowa State) was an all-American honorable mention, and MiLaysia Fulwiley (South Carolina) and Mikaylah Williams (LSU) play prominent roles for championship contenders.

All but Crooks advanced to this second weekend of the NCAA tournament, and Crooks had one of the most dominant performances of the first two rounds, dropping 40 points in her tournament debut against Maryland.

The next generation is making its presence felt.

“I never thought I would be the face of something,” Hidalgo said. “I didn’t have any expectations coming in. I just wanted to come in and play basketball and, of course, win. Just to see this generational talent is just something unlike any other. … It really speaks to how the game of women’s basketball has grown.”

This group of freshmen seems to be both an example and a product of the growth of the game. They demonstrate that the sport is being played at a higher level, but they are in position to do so because of the additional resources and opportunities committed to them. Girls have access to trainers and better coaching at a younger age. They have grown up watching the WNBA gain in popularity and the game expand for women. And that’s just the beginning.

I don’t know a year where there’s been that many that have been that impactful on such a high level,” said Lisa Peterson, chair of the Division I women’s basketball committee. “And so I think about the future of this game, and it’s in really good hands.”

“This freshman class is different. Like, it’s different,” South Carolina Coach Dawn Staley said. “Their bravado is different. Their confidence level is different. Their ability is different. Their talent, everything is different. They welcome this. Like, this is what they’re supposed to be doing. And I think they’ve visualized this. So they’re not taken aback by the spotlight. They’re not taken aback by their ability to perform at a high level consistently.”

All of that was apparent from the beginning of the season. South Carolina played Notre Dame in the season opener in Paris, and Fulwiley became one of the most talked about players in the country. The 5-foot-10 guard from Columbia, S.C., sprinted down the court, went behind the back to avoid a defender as she reached the paint, glided through the air to avoid another defender and finished with a double-clutch reverse layup that had Magic Johnson and Kevin Durant posting on social media about it. On the other end of the court, Hidalgo scored 31 points in her debut. Watkins poured in 32 in her opener, and Crooks scored 23 in her second game.

The bold, high-level play continued all season, and Connecticut Sun Coach Stephanie White, who also serves as a college basketball and NBA analyst, said the maturity of the group is what has stood out to her.

“I remember thinking, typically, if there are elite freshmen, you start to notice it in conference play,” White said. “They’ve had nonconference to work through their kinks, and all of a sudden it’s like, ‘Okay, they’ve all stepped onto the scene,’ so to speak. For these guys, it was immediate. It was what it was in November. And that’s different.”

The common sentiment among the players is not one of surprise. They know each other fairly well from playing in the McDonald’s all-American game and at other elite camps and events. There’s a shared feeling that none of this is too big for them.

ESPN analyst LaChina Robinson said she believes the additional attention players receive from such a young age helps develop that mind-set. They have been on social media and have significant followings. They have played at events with major sponsors and celebrities in attendance.

“We’re used to the media,” Williams said. “We’re used to the cameras. We’re used to the Instagrams. That doesn’t really phase us. We have access to all the trainers and everything. We have grown up in this. So college is not really anything new. It’s just a bigger stage with different players.”

Added Fulwiley, who finished with seven points Friday as the undefeated Gamecocks held off Indiana, 79-75, to reach the Elite Eight: “We’ve been really, really good for a long time. We’ve been waiting to get here, and I’m so glad that all of us are just showing the world what we can do. … This is kind of what I expected.”

The ascension of these young players is impossible to ignore, but the timing is also right. The sport soon will have to replace departing Iowa star Caitlin Clark as the most recognizable figure in the college game. LSU’s Angel Reese and Stanford’s Cameron Brink are also expected to be headed to the WNBA. Connecticut’s Paige Bueckers is nationally recognized, but she has just one year remaining. Watkins is the most likely player to pick up the mantle because her 26.9 points per game trailed only Clark nationwide this year, and Robinson called her the most pro-ready freshman she has ever seen. But Hidalgo’s 22.9 points ranked fifth in the country. There will be no shortage of talent in the years ahead.

“I don’t remember us being this excited about a freshman class since the ‘Three To See’ with Brittney [Griner], Skylar [Diggins] and Elena Delle Donne [in 2009],” Robinson said. “The impact that this group can have, not only on the play between the lines and how they can impact the legacy of their individual programs but also they are going to bring so many eyeballs to the game and help to grow the sport overall.

“It’s just nice to see the baton being passed but also with the game being leveled up as that’s happening.”

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