Injuries serve as life lessons for Rutgers senior
Briyona Canty arrived on campus as a prized recruit in the summer of 2011, poised to restore promise in Rutgers women’s basketball after the memory of the Scarlet Knights’ Final Four run in 2006 had long since faded.
Fresh off capturing the New Jersey Non-Public B crown her senior year at Trenton Catholic Academy, Canty emerged as the No. 1 guard and No. 6 overall player in the nation, according to ESPNU HoopGurlz 100, scoring 17.9 points per game.
It appeared Rutgers was destined to return to prominence, with Canty serving as a catalyst to a recruiting class that included 2015 WNBA Draft pick Betnijah Laney.
Canty had the world at her fingertips, but the world had other plans.
Three months before she had an opportunity to play a collegiate game, a preseason physical conducted by team doctors revealed an irregularity in Canty’s heartbeat, sending her family into a puzzled spin.
“I just was shocked,” Canty said. “I didn’t understand. Why now? You go to the doctors when you’re younger and you get checkups. Now it’s like, I get to college, and they actually find something serious that’s wrong with my heart.”
The problem, a small hole between the chambers of Canty's heart, had gone unnoticed prior to July 2011.
Standard screenings for school, the various AAU teams she played with in her youth and her four preseason physicals at TCA had failed to uncover any healthy issue.
Even the medical staff for the U.S. Youth National Team, which Canty played with as a 16-year old, had issued her a clean bill of health.
The open-heart surgery was scheduled to follow the 2011-2012 season, affording the 5-foot-9 point guard more time to recover.
With the medical staff’s permission, Canty played out her freshman year under the lights, before going under the knife in the offseason.
Although she knew it was necessary, the prospect of open-heart surgery made Canty cringe.
“It was stressful,” she recalled after practice on Feb 24. “I think you start to — you have negative thoughts and I think that’s where a lot of people mess up. In the beginning I was like, ‘Man I don’t know what I’m going to do. This could happen, this could happen, that could happen.’”
Briyona’s mother Jesse was still trying to lift herself from the floor after learning of the diagnosis.
Eighteen years of perfect physicals and now heart surgery was a necessity for her daughter to live a healthy life.
“No one picked it up all those years,” Jessie Canty told NJ.com in 2013. “It’s scary. It’s still scary.”
Fortunately for the Canty family, the surgery was successful.
The next challenge for the rising sophomore was the rehab, a debilitating prospect for an athlete of such ilk.
“With the heart surgery,” Canty said. “You can’t use your arms, you can’t move. You really are stuck.”
Just two years prior, she was flying around the court, touted the best guard in the country, but now she’s “stuck” in a bed at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, wondering what was next.
Then it clicked.
In the midst of coping, Canty saw the smiles on the faces of the children on her floor, many of whom were dealt a more difficult hand.
“You know, they don’t have what I have,” she remembered thinking. “They come in the hospital, maybe missing an arm or missing a leg, but they’re still happy, and they’re trying and that made my heart melt. Now I understand.”
With her newly imparted wisdom in-tow, Canty spent over a year recovering, until finally making it back out on the floor.
After taking a medical redshirt, Canty returned to the court healthy in 2013.
Or so it seemed.
Canty had played her freshman season with chronic knee pain along with the heart irregularity.
“It became so painful that I couldn’t make it through a practice without crying,” she said.
Early in the 2013-2014 season, Canty’s knee began to bark again.
And just like that, after 15 months working to recover from open-heart surgery, she would be sidelined again, this time for microfracture surgery on her right knee.
“The recovery from my heart surgery — it was ok. But my knee? No. That was painful.”
Still, Canty was determined to will herself back onto the court.
The grueling days of rehab consisted of waking up in the early morning hours for treatment, before going to practice, followed by weight training and more treatment, and then she would head to class.
She would repeat the daily routine until returning to the team for her junior season.
With her once-blazing speed now diminished, Canty knew she had to change the way she played the game.
“I think the knee surgery actually did me good because it slowed me down,” she said. “That was honestly probably my problem, I was going too fast.”
Canty made the transition from scorer to facilitator, eventually going on to finish her senior season at Rutgers ranked sixth in the Big Ten in assists.
But in her junior year, when it finally looked like all was well in the world of Briyona Canty, a scare during a team scrimmage sent her back to the hospital.
“I couldn’t breathe really,” she recalled. “I ended up going to the hospital and they were just like ‘(your) iron is low.'”
After some alterations to her diet, Canty’s iron count stabilized, allowing her return to the team.
Now nearly two years later, the Knights season is complete after a 71-55 loss to Virginia in the second round of the WNIT March 20.
The once a prolific scorer finished the season averaging 5.8 points per game.
Her ability may no longer be that of a McDonald’s All-American, but she has adjusted, finding other ways to help her team.
And on occasion, Canty demonstrates that remnants of greatness remain.
Trailing Northwestern by three with the clock running under 11 seconds Feb. 10, Canty fed teammate Tyler Scaife with a chance to tie the game.
Scaife missed the mark, but Canty collected the rebound at the foul line with eight seconds left on the clock, scooted back beyond the arc and buried a 3-pointer to tie it.
Rutgers would go on to win on a last second layup by Scaife.
In a five-second span, Rutgers’ Hall of Fame head coach C. Vivian Stringer saw five-years worth of Canty’s growth.
“I think that she’s become much more comfortable,” Stringer said of Canty, “I just look at where she was as a freshman and where she is now and it's outstanding.”
You won't hear her name called at the WNBA Draft in April, and there is a strong possibility she won’t play professionally overseas.
But Briyona Canty will depart Piscataway with a pair of Bachelor’s degrees, and a doctorate in perseverance.
Although there were no banners raised during her tenure at Rutgers, Canty will leave the Banks with the heart of a champion.
And if given the chance to rewrite history, the Knights’ point guard said she wouldn't change a thing.
“I think both of those injuries really helped me grow, on and off the court. Especially heart surgery helped me understand other people’s weaknesses and what they go through. Now I really understand, like full-circle, about other people.”