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NC State’s Saniya Rivers, a former South Carolina guard, won’t dwell on the ‘what ifs’

Saniya Rivers needed a moment to think about the question. A reporter had asked the point guard for the North Carolina State Wolfpack if she thought she would have developed into the same player she is now had she stayed at South Carolina.

She took a beat. Then: “I’m not sure. I’m not sure if I’ll ever know because, of course, I’m not there anymore.”

There’s at least one other person who will be wondering “what if” Friday night in Rocket Mortgage Fieldhouse when No. 3 N.C. State takes on No. 1 South Carolina in the Final Four. That will be South Carolina coach Dawn Staley, who is facing Rivers for the first time as an opponent since the guard transferred in 2022.

N.C. State’s Saniya Rivers puts up a shot during practice at Rocket Mortgage FieldHouse on Thursday, April 4, 2024, in Cleveland, Ohio. The Wolfpack will face South Carolina in the Final Four on Friday. Kaitlin McKeown/kmckeown@newsobserver.com
N.C. State’s Saniya Rivers puts up a shot during practice at Rocket Mortgage FieldHouse on Thursday, April 4, 2024, in Cleveland, Ohio. The Wolfpack will face South Carolina in the Final Four on Friday. Kaitlin McKeown/kmckeown@newsobserver.com

All week, Staley has been watching one of her former players on tape, trying to find a weakness in her game, something she can expose. If she found one, she didn’t mention it. All Staley had for Rivers on Thursday was compliments.

“Rivers is running the show for them,” Staley said. “She’s the point guard that facilitates everything. She’s a stat filler. She’s a playmaker for them.”

Indeed, there’s no ill will or bad blood between Rivers and Staley. When they saw each other this week here in Cleveland, they shared a tight hug.

“We still talk to this day. She congratulates me on my accomplishments, and I do the same thing. If it’s her birthday, I wish her a happy birthday,” Rivers said. “She’s the type of person you want to have in your corner for future opportunities even if she can’t be your coach or I can’t be her player. ... It’s going to be a friendly battle.”

Staley echoed those sentiments. She said earlier this week that she texts often with Rivers’ parents.

“Once you’re a part of our family, whether you stay or whether you transfer, I mean, you’re always going to have me as a resource. You’re always going to have me as someone that wants you to do extremely well,” Staley said. “And I’m proud of Rivers. I really am. Obviously we knew she was a tremendous player. And 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.”

Two years ago, Rivers wore that Under Armour South Carolina jersey proudly.

The product of Wilmington’s Eugene Ashley High School was part of a star-studded recruiting class for Staley that featured three players ranked in the top five on ESPN’s HoopGurlz rankings: Raven Johnson, Sania Feagin and Rivers.

But as a freshman, Rivers had a hard time cracking the lineup on a regular basis and finding a consistent role. In hindsight, it’s easy to see why. That South Carolina team had six players on it who were drafted by WNBA teams — a figure that will likely only grow. The Gamecocks went 35-2 that season and won their second national championship.

In flashes, Rivers showed what she could be capable of with a regular role and more playing time, but that simply wasn’t going to happen with the Gamecocks that season. She had five assists in a win over Auburn. Seven points and two blocks in a victory over Buffalo. Seven points, four assists and two steals in a win over Tennessee.

Even back then, it was clear that Rivers would become a do-it-all stat-stuffing guard. The question was, would she blossom into that at South Carolina? After winning that 2022 title, Zia Cooke was returning, Johnson was due for a bigger role and Kierra Fletcher was transferring in. The backcourt was getting crowded.

Less than two weeks after she played five minutes in the national championship game and cut down the nets with her teammates in Minneapolis, Rivers entered the transfer portal.

“I won’t speak too much on why I transferred,” Rivers said. “I learned a lot from Dawn as I was there. I learned a lot from the point guards that were there. Obviously, (Destanni Henderson) and Zia, they were older than me.”

A few weeks later, Rivers enrolled at N.C. State. A new era was beginning for a Wolfpack team that had just lost in the Elite Eight in double overtime to UConn in the Huskies’ backyard of Bridgeport, Connecticut. Wes Moore was losing four starters, including guards Raina Perez and Kai Crutchfield.

Rivers didn’t always start for the Wolfpack but eventually found a role. And those flashes she showed at South Carolina started to turn into full-fledged fires for the Wolfpack. In a Dec. 1, 2022 win at Iowa, Rivers poured in 22 points on 9-of-11 shooting to go with five assists and four steals. A month later, she flirted with a triple-double at Boston College with 12 points, eight rebounds and eight steals. Playing 28 minutes a game, Rivers had a meaningful spot in the rotation and she was getting better.

But last season, things just never fully gelled for the Wolfpack. They lost in the quarterfinals of the ACC Tournament, and blew a fourth-quarter lead to Princeton in a first-round NCAA Tournament exit.

“I think we had to work a little bit harder on the team bonding aspect,” forward Mimi Collins said.

Three starters on that team — Diamond Johnson, Jakia Brown-Turner and Camille Hobby — transferred. A fourth, Jada Boyd, graduated and elected not to use her fifth year of eligibility elsewhere.

Five freshmen and a few more transfers were brought in. And suddenly, Collins and River Baldwin were the oldest members of the team, and Rivers was an upperclassman poised for a role as a starter and a leader, something she took seriously.

“I’ve seen her grow a lot. A lot of it has to do with her mental. She’s a vocal leader,” Baldwin said of Rivers. “The chemistry on this team now is unmatched.”

On Nov. 12, 2023, a Sunday in Reynolds Coliseum, Rivers’ potential was on full display. She scored a career-high 33 points and collected 10 rebounds, five assists, three steals and three blocks as an unranked N.C. State team upset then-No. 2 UConn in front of a sold-out crowd.

“I think she realizes she’s a leader for us, and we’re counting on her,” Moore said.

While Rivers hasn’t filled up the scoring column like that again this season, she’s continued to play that way. She controls the tempo for N.C. State, she sets the tone and she does a little bit of everything in terms of rebounding, passing and defense. And with Aziaha James — a fellow junior who saw a 10-point jump in her scoring average this season — they make one of the best backcourt duos in the country. While James grabbed headlines for scoring 27 points in N.C. State’s Elite Eight win over Texas — punching the Wolfpack’s first ticket to the Final Four since 1998 — Rivers’ fingerprints were all over the game too with 11 points, five assists, five rebounds and two blocks.

“I love Saniya Rivers’ game,” said Raven Johnson, now South Carolina’s starting point guard. “She’s a very explosive guard. She’s long. She’s running. She defends. She makes the right play. I think she’s a dynamic guard. She has great court vision.”

So, back to that question. Would Rivers have become this — an All-Conference First Team player, a skilled passer, a versatile defender, and a leader for a Final Four team — had she stayed at South Carolina?

“I’ll never know,” Rivers said. “But maybe, maybe not. I don’t know.”

N.C. State fans are grateful not to have found out.