Women's basketball recruiting: Bold moves from North Carolina prospect Saniya Rivers
Saniya Rivers was just 9 years old. Her Seton Hall camp counselor was a decade her senior and had just won all-freshman honors in the Big East, back when UConn and Notre Dame were still in the league.
No matter. Rivers wanted a one-on-one game.
"She challenged me!" said former Seton Hall point guard Ka-Deidre Simmons, still incredulous seven years later. "Niya said, 'I bet I can beat you.' I said, 'Yeah, right.'"
Simmons crushed Rivers, of course, but she was wowed by the confidence -- and game -- of her young opponent.
"I'm only 5-5, but I was way taller than her at that time," Simmons said. "Saniya was very competitive. She made a couple of shots, and she was talking trash. I knew she was going to be good one day."
Now 26, Simmons has only seen Rivers a couple of times since she left college. But Simmons is not at all surprised that her once-tiny challenger has emerged as one of the top talents in high school basketball.
As a 6-foot sophomore guard at E.A. Laney (Wilmington, North Carolina) last season, Rivers averaged 24.8 points, 12.4 rebounds and 4.1 assists and led the Bucs to a 28-2 record and a berth in the regional semifinals.
She was named North Carolina's Gatorade Player of the Year and is the No. 4 prospect in the espnW HoopGurlz Terrific 25 for the 2021 class. Rivers is the first Laney athlete to win a Gatorade Player of the Year award in any sport.
Next season, however, she will play for Ashley (Wilmington, North Carolina), which is closer to where she now lives.
"We hate to lose her," Laney coach Ashley Berting said.
Rivers' last day at Laney will be June 13.
"I'm going to miss my teammates -- we were starting to get a good relationship going," Rivers said. "It hurts that I have to leave after going so far with them in the playoffs.
"But we moved after the storm (Hurricane Florence hit North Carolina in September of 2018). The new school is just closer -- it's not anything personal with Laney."
Rivers said her family was displaced due to the hurricane for about a month, during which time she lived with her aunt.
Ashley High is just 10 minutes from Rivers' new house. Laney High is 20 to 30 minutes away, depending on traffic.
As for college, Rivers wants to choose a school by next summer. She seems open to just about any top program -- except for the 11-time national champions.
"I used to be a UConn fan," said Rivers, who lists biology as her favorite class. "But now all I can think of is that I want to beat UConn."
Rivers comes from a family of talented players. Both of her parents played college basketball: 6-3 Jimmy Donnell Rivers at Elon and 5-11 Dee Dee Toon Rivers at UNC Wilmington. Saniya's step-sister is 5-8 Nanna Rivers, 36, who played at NC State before competing as a pro overseas. She is now a college basketball referee for the ACC and other games.
Saniya said she sometimes has push-up contests with Nanna -- on FaceTime.
Nanna said she and Saniya have a lot of similarities.
"We both have arms that are crazy long," Nanna said. "I think it's the Rivers genes. We can scratch our knees standing straight up."
Saniya averaged 4.5 steals per game last season.
Nia Young, Saniya's teammate on the Carolina Flames AAU team, knows what it's like to be guarded by Rivers in practice.
"I'm not going to lie -- the first year, Saniya picked my pocket sooo much," Young said. "It made me improve my handle.
"It's like, after you dribble, and the ball comes up ... the next thing you know, she taps the ball right as it's about to come to your hand. Her timing is great."
Many of Rivers' steals happened as Young describes, on the opposing point guard. But she also plays the passing lanes well.
"She has spaghetti arms," her dad said. "I call them 'Inspector Gadget' arms. Her arms outstretched are almost as long as my truck."
I call them 'Inspector Gadget' arms. Her arms outstretched are almost as long as my truck.Jimmy Rivers, on his daughter's wingspan
Added Saniya: "It's a big help. On rebounds, it's really easy. I just extend my arms, and it's like a magnet to the ball."
Rivers' arms were much shorter when she first started dribbling -- age 2 -- and she began playing at a rec league at 4. By fourth grade, she started playing AAU ball for the Flames.
Right away, Flames coach Arne Morris had her "playing up" against sixth-graders.
"She picked things up quickly," Morris said. "She had a different understanding of the game as compared to other kids her age."
Rivers said she's not quite as "sassy" these days as she was at age 9, but don't try her. Rivers recalls a couple of games at Hoggard (Wilmington, North Carolina) last season. Hoggard's fans chanted "overrated" at Rivers, something her mother said gets Saniya's "blood boiling."
At one point, Rivers put her right index finger to her lips and "shushed" the crowd as she continued to dominate. Laney went 4-0 against Hoggard.
"I almost got a technical," Rivers said. "The refs told me to stop."
An explosive athlete, Rivers finished sixth at state last year in the high jump.
She spends countless hours in the gym. In fact, her coaches don't want her in there without adult supervision -- for fear of injury -- but she sneaks in anyway. That dedication is perhaps fitting since her home turf -- at least until she transfers -- is the "Michael Jordan Gymnasium."
The gym honors the legendary Jordan -- a Laney alumnus -- and opened in the fall of 2017, the same year Rivers arrived on campus.
"People joke and say they made the gym just for me," Rivers said. "It makes me feel special."