Josh Verlin (@jmverlin)
WEST CHESTER — Kevin Lynch’s words about Hannah Hidalgo were nearly prophetic.
Asked before Paul VI (N.J.)’s game against Westtown School on Saturday if he had any good stories about the Notre Dame-bound PVI point guard’s competitiveness, the director of the Philly Rise program couldn’t pinpoint one singular moment.
“I don’t know if I have one in particular,” he said, “but I know whatever team she’s on, usually wins.”
Two hours later, Hidalgo not only proved Lynch right, but she gave him and everybody else in the Westtown gym that afternoon a story to answer that question for years to come.
Hannah Hidalgo (above) had a career day on Saturday, scoring 48 at Westtown in a thrilling overtime win. (Photo: Dan Hilferty/CoBL)
The Paul VI senior guard had perhaps the game of her storied South Jersey career, leading the Eagles to an improbable come-from-behind 72-69 overtime win over Westtown.
A 5-foot-6 point guard, Hidalgo put on an absolute show for the few hundred people inside Westtown’s small gym, leaving no doubt whatsoever why she’s considered one of the best players in the senior class, ranked No. 5 by ESPN. Whether she was initiating the offense from the perimeter or in the middle of Westtown’s 2-3 zone, she was a dazzling blur of crossovers and flying finishes, pinpoint passes and rebounds, steals and layups, a one-woman dynamo who willed her team to victory against a Westtown squad boasting three high-major recruits and a few special underclassmen.
By the end of overtime, Hidalgo had piled up a career-best 48 points, on top of 11 rebounds (five offensive), eight steals, and five assists. She made big play after big play, hitting multiple game-tying jumpers down the stretch of regulation, then coming up with a steal-and-layup in the final seven seconds of regulation to force overtime.
“This game was probably one of its own,” said her father and Paul VI’s head coach, Orlando Hidaldo. "In the four years she’s played, I don’t think she’s played in a game like this, where the game went into overtime, and in the last 10 seconds the game totally turned around.”
There was 1:25 left in overtime when Westtown (13-4) took a six-point lead off a bucket by standout eighth grader Jordyn Palmer, the Moose looking ready to finally defend their home court. But Hidalgo responded with a bucket, and PVI (13-1) forced a stop, taking back possession with under a minute to play. Hidalgo, swooping to the hoop once again, drew a foul — and the Moose compounded their mistake with a technical, giving Hidalgo two more free-throws and the Eagles the ball.
Hidalgo made three of four to bring her team within 68-67, her final points of the day. Her last two big plays were assists: seconds after the ensuing inbounds, she found junior guard Shariah Baynes open on the left wing, and Baynes — a Division I recruit who hadn’t hit a jumper all day — absolutely buried the triple.
Westtown brought the ball down the court, only for Hidalgo to corral a loose ball under the bucket, work free and find sophomore Azanah Campbell wide open down the court for the layup, putting Paul VI up four; a singular foul shot by Seton Hall commit Joniyah Bland-Fitzpatrick was Westtown’s final point with under two seconds left, and though she intentionally missed the second, the Moose weren’t able to get a potential game-tying shot.
It’s exactly the kind of game Paul VI wanted after losing the South Jersey Non-Public ‘A’ final to St. John Vianney last March, preparing for the last 10 months to get back there and win it all this fall.
“[We want] a state ‘chip. That’s it,” Hidalgo said. “I mean, last year we just came so close, we were one game away from it. St. John Vianney ended up taking it all. This year we’re out for blood, and we’re just out for that state championship.”
The second-youngest of six of Orlando and Tamara Hidalgo, Hannah was raised in a basketball family, remembering games of 2-on-2 as a young girl, going to gyms daily to start to learn the game. At first, however, her motivation was something off the court.
“I just went for the Gatorade,” she laughed. “Dark blue — best one, hands down.”
It didn’t take long for the love to set in. Orlando Hidalgo recalled knowing that his daughter would be special when she was six years old, playing in a boys’ league, and winning MVP. She played with the boys into middle school, as well as with the Philly Triple Threat grassroots program, then jumped right into a starting role as a freshman at Paul VI, leading the Eagles in scoring as they won 24 games.
In the years since she’s established herself first as one of the best players in South Jersey, then in the mid-Atlantic, and then in the country, to the point where she said she’s been recognized by random people who tell her they watched her games or have been following her progress, something she’s still getting used to.
Hidalgo (above) got to the rim over and over, drawing contact with her terrific body control in midair. (Photo: Dan Hilferty/CoBL)
Though she wasn’t a national name at first, she’s continually risen up the rankings boards over the course of her high school years, going from unranked into the top 50 and now into the top 10, where she’s widely recognized as one of the best guards in the country.
“She’s just dynamic,” said Lynch, who’s been involved in high-level girls grassroots basketball and more in a three-decade career in hoops. “She controls both ends of the court and she impacts both ends of the court, that’s what makes her special. Her motor is ridiculous and that’s what makes her great.”
That competitiveness can be a double-edged sword to some young athletes, who have to balance that drive to win everything with the knowledge that not everybody is built that way, and not everybody is Hannah Hidalgo. As focused as she is on the court, she’s introspective off of it, and knows that’s always a balancing act to work on as she gets to the next level, where that competitive drive is much more common.
“I’m still trying to figure out how to be a leader, because I feel like I’m so passionate for the game, and learning each of my teammates [...] I’m still learning how to communicate with this teammate one way and this teammate another way,” she said. “I can’t always talk to them in the midst of a game, I might have to yell, and then on the sidelines, I’ll pull them to the sidelines and talk to them. I’m still learning, but it definitely has improved over the past year.”
Jordyn Palmer (above) led Westtown with 31 points and 14 rebounds. (Photo: Josh Verlin/CoBL)
While Hidalgo was having her stellar outing, Palmer was having her own big game for the Moose. The 6-1 eighth grader scored 21 of her 31 in the fourth quarter and overtime, complementing that with 13 rebounds, four blocks and a steal. Another eighth grader, Jessie Moses, played big minutes for Westtown, finishing with seven points and two assists, doing an admirable job guarding Hidalgo on a number of occasions.
Recognizing the talent in her young opponents, even if they might never share a college court together, Hidalgo made sure to leave them with a positive thought, words of affirmation as they move into their own high school careers.
“I went up to Jessie and I went up to Jordyn [...] I didn’t even know Jessie’s an eighth grader, both of them are phenomenal players,” Hidalgo said. “They both have a lot of confidence, which is definitely big, especially at this young age, (they’re) only going up from here.”
The Hidalgos know this is their last run together in the basketball world, Hannah getting ready to head off to Notre Dame, where she’ll join a Fighting Irish program that hasn’t lost a step in the post-Muffet McGraw era, currently 15-2 (6-1 ACC) under third-year head coach Niele Ivey.
There’s one more Hidalgo coming up — Judah, a 6-5 wing, is a sophomore at Paul VI, and a developing talent in his own right — but but the bond that Orlando and his daughter have shared as father and coach the last two seasons, on top of all those years before, all those dark blue gatorades and driveway games, is something different.
“It’s really a joy and a blessing, me being a spiritual man, to see her come up the way that she did,” Orlando Hidalgo said. “Because she was not really known, she had to work for everything, she wasn’t ranked or (anything) like that. She put in a lot of work, and to see everything fall into place, it’s truly a blessing, and I’m really excited for her.”
“It’s great playing for my dad, being able to go to him and talk to him, to be able to exchange and have a dialogue instead of a monologue with him saying ‘do this,’” Hannah said. “It really means a lot [...] and I’m just going to try and cherish every moment of it.”
Westtown: 18 | 16 | 8 | 17 | 10 || 69
Paul VI: 10 | 21 | 12 | 16 | 13 || 72
Westtown: 22-52 FG (3-18 3PT), 22-28 FT
Paul VI: 24-58 FG (3-14 3PT), 21-26 FT
Westtown: Jordyn Palmer 31, Zahra King 13, Jessie Moses 7, Joniyah Bland-Fitzpatrick 6, Atlee Vanesko 5, Savannah Curry 5, Aidan Langley 2
Paul VI: Hannah Hidalgo 48, Eva Andrews 10, Brooke Barnes 6, Shariah Baynes 4, Azanah Campbell 2, Mikala Young 2