Derrick "D.J." Rivera is accustomed to playing in big games.
It wasn’t all that long ago he sank the winning shot at the buzzer to help the Neumann-Goretti boys’ basketball team defeat Roman Catholic for the 2006 Catholic League title.
Now a freshman playing ball for St. Joseph’s University, he faced a similar situation at Atlantic City’s Boardwalk Hall March 7 in a first-round Atlantic 10 Men’s Basketball Championship game against Temple. Rivera and his Hawks were trailing by as many as nine points in the second half, with the loser going back to Philly. With 11:39 left in the game, St. Joe’s found itself behind, 50-41.
Seeing 13 minutes of action in the second half, the 6-foot-2 guard and his squad kept battling. With 3:07 left, freshman teammate Jawan Carter nailed a three-pointer, closing the gap to 56-54. A little more than two minutes later, Carter hit two free throws to put St. Joe’s ahead for good. They won, 66-62, and advanced to the quarterfinals. Rivera saw 25 minutes, finishing with two assists and two rebounds. The 18-year-old only attempted one shot, as he was just playing a team role.
"I do whatever the team needs me to do to win," he said during a post-game interview in the locker room. "I have good teammates who scored, hit their free throws in the end and played good defense. It took the pressure off me, and I hope I took it off them."
This face-off was a lot closer than the two regular-season meetings, which St. Joe’s won 80-67 and 92-76.
"The first two games I think we got the best of them," Rivera said of Temple. "In the beginning [of the tournament game] they got the best of us."
Like high school, where he helped his Saints take back-to-back Catholic League titles in ’05 and ’06, the athlete was just happy to win.
"You just want to get to that next game," the North Philadelphia resident said. "That’s all you think about really."
Instead of vying for city titles, the ultimate prize is winning the NCAA Tournament. Just to make the field of 64, his Hawks needed to be victorious in last week’s Atlantic 10 Tournament. Rivera, a former First Team All-State, All-City and All-Catholic selection, was focused on helping his team achieve that goal.
"I am just doing what my team needs me to do to get to the NCAA Tournament and especially the Atlantic 10 championship," he said. "We haven’t gotten one since ’97."
That year, St. Joe’s defeated Rhode Island, 61-56. In ’06, the Hawks lost 62-61 to Xavier in the conference final.
Rivera, who is majoring in social sciences, still has three more years to achieve those objectives. This year, the Hawks’ luck ran out when they lost the March 8 quarterfinal contest to George Washington, 58-48.
Prior to this year, the squad had made six-straight post-season appearances either in the NCAA Tournament or the National Invitational Tournament.
One of the biggest adjustments for Rivera has been his decreased scoring average. He went from tallying a team-high 17.7 points per game as a Saints senior to 5.9 as a college rookie, which ranks sixth on the Hawks.
"Like, at times, I want to go and score a basket, but I have to play our offense," he said. "I just have to keep working hard and later on my time will come."
Playing time has been another big adjustment, going from seeing action for all 32 minutes as a high school athlete to coming off the bench in college. During the regular season for St. Joe’s, he averaged 23 minutes a night. Against Temple, he watched the first five minutes from the sidelines.
"I am learning how to be a team player, and cheering my team on," he said.
Against George Washington, he played a little more active offensive role, attempting eight shots from the field, making just one. However, the rookie did convert four of six foul shots, and finished with six points and six rebounds. As a team, his Hawks had an off shooting night, making just 24 percent of their field-goal attempts and committed 21 turnovers.
If his past is a sign of things to come, the Hawks are in very good hands with Rivera on the roster. He graduated from Neumann-Goretti as the program’s all-time leading scorer (1,122 points).
By staying in Philadelphia for his college career, the athlete still makes it to Saints games when he can. Rivera was sitting behind the Neumann-Goretti bench at the Palestra for the March 4 Catholic League championship game against Roman Catholic. His old squad was trying to win a third-straight league crown, but lost 59-56.
"I wanted them to win," Rivera said of his former team. "I had a meeting at my school so I had to get out of there kind of early in the third quarter.
"One of my buddies called me and said we lost by three. I was like man, I wish they would’ve won and I wish I was there."
He maintains close contact with many of his former teammates, including seniors Rick Jackson and Antonio "Scoop" Jardine. The two will be joining Rivera on the Division I basketball scene later this year as both are headed to Syracuse University.
Rivera’s college career may just be getting started, but he is already enjoying life in the post season.
"I like the tournament so far," he said following the Temple game. "[Atlantic City’s Boardwalk Hall] seems like a nice place to play."