It was a typically forgettable stat line for Jeremiah Rivers: one point, two assists and one rebound in 17 minutes.
But as he has done all season, Rivers made more of an impact in Georgetown’s victory over North Carolina last week than the box score suggests. His play on defense in the final minutes was important to Georgetown’s ability to reach its first Final Four since 1985.
Rivers, averaging just 1.3 points a game, has emerged as Georgetown’s defensive stopper, particularly late in games. Against the Tar Heels, he was in an offensive-defensive platoon with Jonathan Wallace and Jesse Sapp.
His job was simple, even if accomplishing it was not.
The son of Boston Celtics coach Doc Rivers was supposed to disrupt the play of Tar Heels star point guard Ty Lawson. With 22 seconds left and the game tied in regulation, Hoyas coach John Thompson III inserted Rivers to cover Lawson, one of college basketball’s quickest and most dangerous playmakers.
“I am extremely comfortable with him out there now,” Thompson said of the 6-foot-4, 205-pound Rivers. “Jeremiah is someone who has great lateral movement. He can move sideways almost as fast as he can forward. He is able to keep his body in front of people. Much like the questions about DaJuan [Summers], much like Vernon [Macklin] and everyone else, he has progressed. He has learned and matured like the rest of our group.”
Lawson was unable to penetrate or deliver an entry pass in that final possession, and North Carolina missed a 3-pointer. The stop allowed the Hoyas to force overtime, where Georgetown opened on a 14-0 run.
“The main reason Coach had me out there was to try to limit Ty Lawson from killing us,” Rivers said. “I really do consider myself a defensive stopper. That is pretty much why Coach has me in the game for the most part right now. We have Jon and DaJuan and Jeff [Green] and Roy [Hibbert] taking care of the points for the most part. I just try to get in and do what Coach asks me to do. He puts me on the best player every time I get out there.”
Rivers did not come to college expecting to be a defensive role player. Rivers averaged 13.6 points, 5.7 rebounds and 5.2 assists a game as a high school star with a famous father in Florida.
But he has happily embraced his defensive role because “winning is winning.”
The specialist will be called upon again Saturday when Georgetown meets Ohio State in a national semifinal in Atlanta. While much of the focus will be on the star-studded center matchup of 7-footers Greg Oden and Hibbert, Rivers will be asked to quiet another explosive backcourt.
Ron Lewis is having a breakout tournament for the Buckeyes, averaging 24.7 points in the last three wins and making 12 of 26 3-pointers in the tournament. The 6-4 senior had 27 points against Xavier in the second round, including a 3-pointer to force overtime that always will be part of Ohio State folklore. He is joined in the backcourt by point guard Mike Conley Jr., who is averaging 19 points and four assists the last three games.
“They are great shooters who have a lot of quickness and speed,” Rivers said. “Maybe we just try to do what we did to North Carolina, just keep grinding games out, just keep doing what we have been doing since we have this big run since January. We are going to keep doing what we do.”
It has been up-and-down season for Rivers, who seemed to be on the rise when he played a season-high 21 minutes and scored a season-high six points in a loss at Duke on Dec. 2. But he came down on Wallace’s leg in the final minutes and sprained his right ankle.
He missed three games and played sparingly after that before starting to carve out his role in January. Rivers slowly earned more playing time as the Hoyas began their run to Big East regular season and tournament titles.