NC State’s Saniya Rivers can win a second title. But first? She has to beat her former team

CLEVELAND — Saniya Rivers is two wins away from doubling her ring collection and adding a second national title to her three-year college resume.

The only problem? The teammates she cut the nets with in 2022 are also taking the floor in Cleveland, but against her this time. As South Carolina returns to the Final Four for the fourth consecutive season, Rivers has flourished elsewhere. The national championship game was the last time she suited up for the Gamecocks; Rivers transferred shortly afterward and now has NC State in the national semifinals for the first time in her lifetime.

A Wilmington, N.C., native, Rivers left South Carolina in part to play closer to her family. But she’s also found her home on the court with the Wolfpack.

Rivers grew up in a basketball family. Her parents played, as did her siblings, so the game was a part of their daily lives. Her grandma bought her a mini hoop when she was 2 years old. Eventually, her parents got her an outdoor hoop, which meant Rivers was outside playing from the moment she got home from school until the street lights came on.

After one year of playing with the Gamecocks, Rivers realized she wanted to be back in her home state and narrowed her list of transfer options to NC State and North Carolina. Being close to the people who nurtured her love for the game was paramount.

“Even though it’s driving distance, it’s hard when maybe you want a home-cooked meal and maybe you just want a hug from your parents, you just need to talk to them, it’s just hard to not just be able to drop everything and just go four hours away,” Rivers said about playing in South Carolina. “Being two hours away from home is definitely a better feeling.”

Rivers ultimately decided on Wes Moore and the Wolfpack because of their style of play. As someone who plays fast and likes to get out in transition, she was attracted to a coach who would push the tempo. Rivers also says she appreciates that Moore prefers to play four out and not install too many sets, allowing his players to have freedom on the court to just play basketball.

She also wanted to be in a place that would give her an opportunity to play. Although she left South Carolina with a title, she averaged only 13 minutes per game and faced an uphill battle for minutes within a crowded backcourt. At NC State, Rivers would run the offense. That was exactly what she desired, even if it came with the task of having to lead her new team.

Mimi Collins, a sixth-year graduate student for the Wolfpack, recalled a workout over the summer when they were playing pickup and Rivers told her she was trying to figure out her new role. Collins simplified it as much as possible for the point guard.

“I said, the ball’s in your hand 99 percent of the time, if you don’t say something, we’re gonna have a lot of issues,” Collins said. “I said, I need you to step up. Even though I’m the post player, and I’m the leader and I’m the oldest, that doesn’t matter. You have the ball in your hands.

“When that clicked in her head, it’s just phenomenal to see her growth and to see her step up in a leader role. And right now, nobody can stop her.”

Rivers is averaging the most points and assists of her college career, even accounting for her expanded minutes. She’s getting to the foul line frequently — her 4.4 free-throw attempts per game put her in the 95th percentile nationally — and she’s shooting a career best from the line. Senior Madison Hayes notes that Rivers has been more vocal, not standing in the background as much as she did last season. She set the tone with her work in the summer and has been consistent ever since.

The irony is that now that Rivers is at her individual best, she’ll go against the school where she experienced her greatest team success, the place where she learned how to win.

Rivers highlighted her bonds with Kamilla Cardoso and Raven Johnson, who were in the second-unit trenches with her in 2022, and noted how great it was that they’re all now flourishing in starting roles.

The Wolfpack guard says she stays in touch with coach Dawn Staley, and Staley reached out to her parents to congratulate them on NC State advancing to the Final Four. From afar, Staley has been able to appreciate Rivers’ growth.

“It’s unfortunate that her talents aren’t on display in a Gamecock uniform, but the most important thing, her talents will be on display at a Final Four,” Staley said. “I do think her experience with us will help her navigate through that space because she’s the only one on the team that’s played at this level and really understands what it takes to win. I know she’ll impart her knowledge of being here.”

Cardoso added: “She’s an amazing person, she’s a really good player, and I’m just so happy that she went somewhere else and she found a happy place.”

That happy place is Cleveland this weekend. After attending every home game of her granddaughter’s this season, Hilda Smith is making her way to the Final Four. Rivers said Smith’s boss secretly set up a GoFundMe so that she could see her play on the biggest stage. From the mini hoop to the Final Four, Rivers’ biggest supporters have been a part of her journey the whole way.

Whether that ends in another ring is yet to be seen, but Rivers is optimistic. As she said, “Pressure makes diamonds.”

(Photo of Saniya Rivers: Steph Chambers / Getty Images)

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