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Notebook: Is Notre Dame WBB equipped to handle the latest what-if?

Freshman Hannah Hidalgo (left) has stepped in and made an early impact for Notre Dame as Olivia Miles (right) continues to recover from knee surgery.
Freshman Hannah Hidalgo (left) has stepped in and made an early impact for Notre Dame as Olivia Miles (right) continues to recover from knee surgery. (Matt Cashore, USA TODAY Sports Network)

Zora Stephenson flipped on the Notre Dame women’s basketball game against Northwestern on Wednesday night for both business and pleasure purposes.

And ended up with a case of heartache.

“My heart dropped when I saw Sonia go down,” Stephenson told Inside ND Sports of junior guard and preseason All-American Sonia Citron, who left Notre Dame’s 110-52 rout of the overwhelmed and visiting Wildcats in the third quarter with a leg injury of which the severity and specifics have yet to be disclosed.

“That shouldn’t be the takeaway of the game. They did amazing things, but that’s what stood out to me. I think they’ll be all right, but it sucks if Sonia can’t go for an extended amount of time.”

It would seem miraculous if Citron was anything but a spectator for 16th-ranked Notre Dame’s next game, for which Stephenson will be doing play-by-play as part of the NBC broadcast crew that includes analyst LaChina Robinson and sideline reporter Isis Young.




The opponent in the second-annual Citi Shamrock Classic (1 p.m. EST; NBC/Peacock) from the Entertainment and Sports Arena in Washington, D.C., will be Illinois (2-1), a preseason top 25 team that fell out of the rankings after a 71-67 road loss to Marquette in game two that was followed by a 103-33 smackdown of St. Peter’s on Wednesday.

The Illini have four players averaging double figures, led by guard Genesis Bryant’s 16.3 points per game. The senior played her first two seasons at NC State.

The No. 19 Notre Dame football team follows on NBC/Peacock at 3:30 p.m., with its 2023 home finale against Wake Forest. Stephenson, a former women’s basketball player at Elon, had been serving as NBC’s sideline reporter for Irish home football games this season. Lewis Johnson will be pinch-hitting on Saturday.

There’s no singular pinch-hitter available to make up for the lost impact of Citron, if she indeed is out for an extended period of time. The Irish (2-1) are already without another junior All-American, guard Olivia Miles, who could return this season, though the timeline to do so remains fluid.

Citron was averaging 20.3 points and 4.0 rebounds for the Irish, while shooting 60% from the field, 42% from the 3-point arc and 89% from the free-throw line.

“As far as Notre Dame goes, I know there’s so much talk about Olivia Miles,” Stephenson said, “but Sonia Citron on paper was the returning leading scorer for the Irish last season. And she brings so much to the table.

“Actually, when Olivia went down [in February], she had to step up and be the lead guard and she showed some much fearlessness. And coach [Niele] Ivey was just talking about how she wants Sonia to be less selfless, because she thinks she can look for her shot more. Especially against Northwestern, it was great to see her kind of get in a groove with that. It felt like she was starting to wake up in terms of the season.

“It’s going to be huge if she can’t play, but the saving grace is this team has been through so much adversity. And they know how to play without big names. Last year it was [Dara] Mabrey and Miles. And so if Sonia can’t go against Illinois, Hannah Hidalgo is prepared to put the team on her back.”

The 5-6 freshman comes into the game as the nation’s sixth-leading scorer (26.0) and the resounding national leader in steals per game (7.0).

“I’m just so impressed and amazed at Hannah’s ability to play with so much confidence out there,” Stephenson said. “And I say that from experience. As a freshman, you’re going through a lot of transition, from school and moving. She’s from New Jersey, so she’s not from the Midwest.

“To be able to come in there like she’s been doing it for so long is spectacular. She's so fun to watch, and she’s someone that commits to the defensive end. That’s the one thing that jumped out to me last night against Northwestern, they were tenacious defensively.

“It’s hard to come up with a comparison of her. So many of the greats that you think about, we highlight them for their scoring or ability to rebound. Somebody who has a knack for the basketball in the open court is so hard to do, especially without fouling.

“To apply that kind of pressure to know when and how to poke it out. Twelve steals in one game [against NJIT] is nuts. I don’t care what level you’re at. Any coach would love to have that, especially when you’re applying pressure on the opposing point guard.”

No early on-ramp for Koval

Notre Dame got a lift last season one one member of the standout 2023 recruiting class, that included Hidalgo, enrolled early. That was guard Cass Prosper, who played her high school ball in her native Canada and joined the Irish as an early enrollee last December.

Five-star center Kate Koval, who signed with the Irish on Tuesday, won’t be following that script, as a member of MaxPreps' No. 1 high school girls team nationally, Long Island (N.Y.) Lutheran. But Ivey anticipates the 6-5 Ukraine native to have both a significant and early impact when she joins the roster this summer ahead of the 2024-25 season.

“A dominant post,” Ivey said of Koval before Tuesday’s Irish practice. “She’s super competitive and has a very high IQ. She’s great on the block but also can step out and face up on the perimeter. She’s a great passer.

“She’s just an elite person, an elite player. Having somebody with that size is something I’ve always wanted, just to have her come in — she’s going to have a big impact on our program. I’m excited for her.”

And Ivey has seen this movie before. She was a sophomore when 6-5 eventual All-American Ruth Riley joined the Notre Dame roster as a freshman for the 1997-98 season. They won a national title together in the final seasons of college eligibility, in 2001-01.

“When Ruth came in, I realized with her size, being 6-5, we didn’t have that,” Ivey said. “Sometimes when you have a player like that, that’s just an advantage. But to see what Ruth did for her entire career and for the women’s game was something I don’t think I’d ever even imagined, being her teammate. And so, I feel like Kate’s going to have the same opportunity to impact our program in such a powerful way like Ruth did and also the game.

“Like I said, she’s super competitive. She's just as competitive as my guards. Just as competitive as anybody in high school. So, I think that confidence that she has from her position — she’s a great leader. She’s very vocal for a post. I think she’s going to just take the college world by storm, because she’s really gifted. I love the intangible piece about Kate even more than I love her talent.”

Long Island Lutheran, the New York Class AA reigning state champion, opens its season Dec. 1 in the prestigious Art Turner Classic in Chantilly, Va., against Catholic High of Virginia Beach, Va.


• Five-star forward and Notre Dame recruiting target Mackenly Randolph opened her senior season Thursday night with her Chatsworth (Calif.) Sierra Canyon High teammates. The Trailblazers, No. 7 in the nation per MaxPreps, romped over Alhambra (Calif.) Mark Keppel High, 86-39, in the first round of the eight-team Harvard-Westlake Classic.

Randolph contributed 24 points, 19 rebounds, five assists and four blocked shots.

She took an official recruiting visit to Notre Dame on Oct. 14, and though she bypassed signing with anyone during the early signing period (Nov. 8-15), the Irish are believed to be very much in contention to sign her during the spring signing period (April 17-May 15).

• Notre Dame’s appearance in D.C. goes well beyond basketball, with some significant events scheduled outside of the game, and yet it all ties directly into the recent spike in popularity of the women’s game.

“I think it’s when you can humanize athletes and you can feel like you’re not just rooting for an athlete but a person and their story, whether it’s someone like [UConn's] Paige Bueckers, who's been through adversity, through injuries,” Stephenson said.

Angel Reese, who transferred [to LSU] and then became the Bayou Barbie. She’s just this magical human who has so much personality, right? Caitlin Clark, who went to the home school, so to speak, and continued to further that school’s tradition. Iowa was already a big name in the women’s game, but, oh my goodness, what she’s able to do.

“I think it’s that. It's the branding and the marketing of who these women are. … When you’re watching TV and you’re turning the channel and you recognize someone, you’re going to stop. And then the women’s game has put those names out there. Every Notre Dame game that I’ve watched, they continue to talk about Olivia Miles, Olivia Miles, as they should. And I think it’s so great that you have those big names that are now recognizable in mainstream sports.”

• So far Notre Dame has held No. 1 South Carolina to its lowest point total of the season, even in a lopsided 100-71 loss to open the season on Nov. 6 in Paris.

Since then the Gamecocks blew out then-No. 14 Maryland, 114-76, and Clemson, 109-40.



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