ASHBURN -- Turner County native and Florida State basketball player Ronalda Pierce died early Tuesday morning at Tallahassee Memorial Hospital, an apparent victim of Marfan Syndrome.

According to the Tallahassee Police Department, a friend noticed Pierce, 19, was breathing strangely and attempted to wake her around 2 a.m. Tuesday morning. Pierce did not respond and was transported to Tallahassee Memorial where she was pronounced dead at 3:17 a.m. Investigators found no indications of foul play during their initial investigation at the scene.

Tuesday morning, the medical examiner issued a preliminary autopsy report which indicated Pierce died due to a ruptured aorta resulting from an aneurysm that was possibly the result of Marfan Syndrome. Further tests are planned to confirm those findings and a final medical examiner's report may take up to two months.

Marfan syndrome is a genetic disorder of the connective tissue that usually affects tall and lanky, loose-jointed people. The tissue that holds together blood vessels, heart valves, cartilage, tendons and other structures are weakened and can lead to an aortic enlargement.

Pierce, a 6-5 center with the Lady Seminoles, was possibly the most honored athlete in Turner County High School history.

She was the four-time All-Tiftarea girls Player of the Year and was named a Parade third team All-American in 2003. She was also named Georgia's Class AA Player of the Year in 2003 when she averaged 16.9 points, 14 rebounds and 8 blocks per game. She was named to several other All-American and All-South teams during her prep career. In a ceremony on January 17th, Turner County retired Pierce's number 55.

At Florida State, Pierce played in 29 games as a freshman and was second on the team with 21 blocked shots. She saw considerable playing time as a freshman, averaging 5.3 points and 3.5 rebounds per game including a career-high 12 points against Savannah State and 10 rebounds against Florida. A liberal arts major, Pierce was the tallest player on the Lady Seminole roster.

Dr. Paul Murray, a cardiologist with Affinity Health Group, said Marfan syndrome affects about one in every 10,000 people and that some live fairly normal lives while watching for certain things to occur. He added that it is hereditary and when one person has the disease, usually one of their children will also have it.

"It affects several organ systems," Dr. Murray said. "They get back problems and their joints are hyper-mobile. They can usually bend their elbows backwards or something like that. Their wingspan, from fingertip to fingertip, is longer than their body and their fingers are long. They can wrap their fingers around their wrists and overlap. A physician can spot someone a mile away who has it."

Marfan syndrome first gained national attention in 1984 when Flo Hyman, a 6-5 volleyball player on the U.S. Olympic team, died while competing in a match due to the disease.

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