Saniya in Red

Wilmington’s NCAA Champion, Saniya Rivers comes home to play for NC State

BY Amanda Lisk

Rivers trains with State’s team in July 2022. Andrew Yates/NC State Athletics
Rivers trains with State’s team in July 2022. Andrew Yates/NC State Athletics

The 2022-23 college women’s basketball season tips off in October with 20 hours of practice allowed per week per NCAA guidelines leading up to preseason games. At NC State, a new story will unfold when Wilmington’s Saniya Rivers makes her first appearance with the Wolfpack on Nov. 3 vs. UNC Pembroke.

Rivers shocked her fans on April 14 when she announced she would be entering her name into the transfer portal less than two weeks after winning the 2022 NCAA championship with the University of South Carolina Gamecocks.

“Everyone was calling me crazy for leaving a championship team,” Rivers said while on her way back to Wilmington for a weekend in July following a week of conditioning at NC State. “It really just wasn’t a good fit for me personally.”

Rivers was ranked the No. 3 overall player in the country in the class of 2021 by ESPN and named a McDonald’s All-American as well as USA Today and Gatorade National Player of the Year after her senior season at Ashley High School.

Sophomore Saniya Rivers began training with NC State in the summer of 2022 after transferring from the University of South Carolina. Andrew Yates/NC State Athletics

She was one of the top players of the Gamecocks’ heralded 2021 recruiting class, but behind the scenes she was struggling with confidence. By the end of her freshman campaign, she needed a fresh start.

“We measure how she’s doing by her smile and the joy she plays the game with,” says Rivers’s mom, Dee Dee Toon Rivers, who played at UNC Wilmington. “When she would get out on the court, sometimes we just didn’t see the joy we were accustomed to seeing when she played.”

“If your love of the game is crumbling and you have a goal of playing at the next level in the WNBA, you have to make some changes, I think it was a really strong and brave move on her part,” says her dad, Jimmy Rivers, who played for Elon College and Hoggard High School.

Once Rivers’s name hit the transfer portal, her phone started ringing. NC State coach Wes Moore was one of the first to call.

“We recruited Saniya hard out of high school,” Moore says. “I think that’s where it works best in the portal, when it’s someone you’ve already built a relationship with. It was really exciting for her to decide to come back home to NC State.”

Rivers, a 6’1” guard, is one of three McDonald’s All-American players Moore is adding to his roster through the transfer portal after losing four starters.

“We graduated four young ladies, two had played together for five years. A lot of experience walked out the door,” says Moore.

“For the strength of the pack is the wolf and the strength of the wolf is the pack.”  

   — Rudyard Kipling

Along with Rivers, State picked up Mimi Collins from Maryland and River Baldwin, a center from Florida State.

“To reload with experience makes a big difference,” says Moore.

Rivers, Collins and Baldwin join a team facing one of the toughest schedules in the country in a season full of possibility.

“I’m excited because I know what we can bring to the table, and that’s just looking at us as individual pieces, so just imagine when you put that together. It’s really going to be beautiful basketball,” says Rivers.

With USC Rivers did not play in the first three games of the NCAA tournament, but when she entered the Elite Eight game at the Greensboro Coliseum in the fourth quarter against Creighton, she drew an ovation from the crowd.

Andrew Yates/NC State Athletics

Rivers averaged 36.8 points, 12.1 rebounds, 6.1 steals and 5.8 assists per game during her senior year at Ashley High, where she surpassed the 2,000-career point mark.

Rivers had her pick of any college, having been recruited by all the top programs. She chose South Carolina, where she appeared in 27 games. Her 12.9 minutes per game was the most of any freshman at USC, but not enough time to perform at her capability. She averaged 2.3 points and 1.4 assists, which took a toll on her confidence.

“We told her, ‘Look, we put too much money into your teeth, we need to see that smile, so you need to be trying to figure out how you are going to smile,’” says Jimmy Rivers.

Rivers, who admits to wanting to leave mid-season, helped her team to the championship by playing a combined 25 minutes in the Final Four. She logged 20 minutes in the semifinal against Louisville, delivering 4 assists, 2 steals, 1 block and 3 points.

“Going to SC and being part of that championship culture was absolutely good for her; I think that’s going to add to her life forever. At the same time, I think the individual sometimes needs something a little bit different and sometimes you don’t know what that is until you get in an environment and see how you thrive or don’t thrive and you have to make decisions,” says Dee Dee Rivers.

On May 19, a social media post pictured a confident, smiling Rivers wearing an NC State uniform with her No. 22 from Ashley High. “Saniya Rivers Committed to the Pack,” it said.

“I think she’s ready to make some adjustments and attack this thing and get ready for a better year and a better story for herself,” says Dee Dee Rivers.

Rivers says she is focusing on the upcoming season and rediscovering her love for the game.

“There are the negative Nancys out there that say, ‘Saniya Rivers can’t shoot,’ but the ones who really know me know I can shoot. I just need my confidence back and I’m planning on improving that so I can get back to the player I was in high school, the player that many people saw as number one,” she says. “Once I start to see that my confidence is growing, I feel it will never go away again. Hopefully I’ll make a big enough impact to win another national championship this time in my home state. That’s the hope, that’s the goal for sure.”

Andrew Yates/NC State Athletics

“For the strength of the pack is the wolf, and the strength of the wolf is the pack” is a famous quote by author and poet Rudyard Kipling. It poignantly depicts the challenge of the NC State women’s basketball team this season.

“We’ve got one of the toughest schedules in the country. These players are going to have to mesh and grow together quickly. That’s going to be a big challenge,” says Moore.

The team was four points away from a first appearance in the NCAA Final Four last spring.

“We got beat in double overtime to go to the Final Four. We’ve got to figure out a way to get that one extra bucket,” Moore says.

Moore has been working with Rivers on tweaking her shot and getting in reps.

“Confidence comes from within. Winning on the court, wining in life comes from within. You’ve got to have that confidence. I think she’s going to be ready to go and make a great impact here at NC State,” he says.

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