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Rivers floods the scorebooks in second year at Mercer

February 25, 2016

As bright lights illuminated the hardcourt days after the death of Jibri Bryan, a mourning Hawkins Arena erupted in elation as a 6-foot-8 gliding sophomore jumped from just inside the free-throw line to throw down a bear-sized slam.

It was the highlight of an emotional victory. It was a SportsCenter Top 10 Play.

It was Demetre Rivers.

Although the thunderous dunk wasn’t the first time Bears’ fans had seen Rivers make a big play on the court, this one came in the Bears’ first outing since the death of Bryan and suspensions of starters Jestin Lewis and Desmond Ringer.

Demetre Rivers squares up against his Western Carolina defender.

Geovic Jadol
Demetre Rivers squares up against his Western Carolina defender.

“It was really just all on the fly,” Rivers said. “I cut, and I think it was Jordan [Strawberry] who passed it to me. And as soon as I looked up, I saw the whole lane. I just wanted to rip the rim off . . . I wanted to get one for [Bryan].”

But it’s not the only basket Rivers has scored for his fallen teammate. Before the absences of Lewis, Ringer and Bryan, Rivers averaged 7.3 points per game, which was sixth on the team during the span.

Without the trio, Rivers has elevated his game. In the last six games, the Goose Creek, South Carolina native set a new career high in points — twice — and leads the team with 15.1 points per outing.

And that comes one season after scoring six total points.

Growing up in Moncks Corner, South Carolina as the youngest of three children, Rivers’ first love was not basketball — he preferred pads and a helmet.

“I originally wanted to play football because my older brother, he was like a big-time quarterback for his high school,” Rivers said. “I always wanted to be like my big brother. My first year of sports, like Little League and stuff, I played football. I wanted to play again, but my dad signed me up for basketball. And I loved it.”

Rivers’ father, Kenneth Sr., stands tall at 6-foot-6 and has played basketball throughout his life. Demetre’s older sister, Lakendra, laced up the high tops as well.

As Rivers matured in age, so did his love for the game. But he attributes some of his passion to Tracy McGrady, a seven-time NBA All-Star.

“I used to always be outside. My mom and my dad would always have to yell out the window telling me to come inside because it’d be dark, and I’d be outside shooting,” Rivers said. “It’d be midday — sun’s in the sky, it’s burning up outside, and I’d still be outside just messing around. All that played a big impact in just loving the game through seeing the things that Tracy McGrady used to do whenever he was in the league.”

And just like how his favorite player earned the nickname “T-Mac,” over his playing career Rivers has been given his own alter name that you’ll hear from those closest to him: Meech.

The nickname is a shorter version of his real name, but Rivers didn’t receive the name from a family member or friend. He credits a former coach.

In middle school, Rivers played for a Youth Basketball of America (YBOA) team — which he described as a smaller version of AAU — named the North Charleston All-Stars. After being persuaded to join the team by a teammate’s father, Rivers said he went to practice without ever meeting the coach.

“He was trying to figure out what my name was,” Rivers said. “He knew it was like Demetre or Demetrius or somewhere around there, and he wanted to shorten it up. So he called me Meechie and Meech. Then my teammates called me Meech, and that’s where it all started.”

And it continued to stick with him even after he moved 25 minutes south to Goose Creek after eighth grade. He originally planned to attend Berkeley High School, the high school his father and siblings attended, but once the family moved, Rivers went to Stratford High School.

Rivers said he earned a spot on the varsity team at Stratford as a freshman — one year after being cut from the B team at Berkeley in eighth grade.

“It was definitely motivation, especially since we played [Berkeley] every year,” Rivers said. “Whenever we played [Berkeley], I wanted to have a real good game and show them what they’re missing out on.”

After four years, the Stags missed out on a two-time All-State and three-time All-Region performer who finished his career averaging 18.1 points and 7.1 rebounds per game.

It was after his sophomore year in which he led his team in scoring and grew to approximately 6-foot-4 when Rivers said he believed he could play at the college level.

And that dream came true the summer after his junior year, only days after an AAU tournament in Suwanee, Georgia. Mercer’s assistant head coach Doug Esleeck offered him a scholarship.

“First time I ever heard of Mercer,” Rivers said. “Didn’t even know where they were at.”

Rivers attempts a jumpshot over Western Carolina defense.

Geovic Jadol
Rivers attempts a jumpshot over Western Carolina defense.

But head coach Bob Hoffman said the Bears had seen Rivers play before the tournament.

“He was playing the wing. He was long and athletic. He could really shoot the ball,” Hoffman said. “We’ve been really successful with big wings in the past — long guys. I think that’s an inner strength of our teams. We thought he fit that mold really well.”

Rivers ultimately chose Mercer over his other option, Campbell University in North Carolina. But he wasn’t able to make a major impact his first year on campus, as he recorded only 43 total minutes played on the year.

Rivers said the transition from high school to college basketball was an adjustment.

“Freshman year was definitely a learning experience to get adjusted to things, get a feel for the system and the offense and defense, how they wanted us to guard and stuff like that,” he said.

But instead of going home the summer after freshman year, Rivers decided to stay on campus, take classes and workout with the basketball program.

And he said he believes the move has reaped some of the improved play this season.

“Staying that summer definitely improved my game and get a feel for things and figure out what I could do best, what things I needed to work on, things along that line,” Rivers said.

Hoffman said the work Rivers put in allowed him to get to where “he was just playing at a different level this summer” as he gained strength and confidence. Combined with the opportunity he received at the beginning of the season, that has been the recipe for Rivers’ success this year, Hoffman said.

When Bryan went to the bench with a knee injury the second game of the season, Rivers received that opportunity in the form of his first career start.

“Oh, I was nervous,” River said. “Usually I don’t get nervous playing. I don’t really see the crowd much. It’s just us guys on that court and the basketball. Just trying to go out there and play. But, it’s my first start, so . . . I was nervous, but things went well.”

He went on to score more points against George Mason (10) than he did all of his freshman year. And he hasn’t looked back since.

Part of his improvement, Hoffman said, has been his ability to put the ball on the floor and attack defenders.

“With his length and his long strides, if he can continue to get stronger and stronger with that, then he’s going to be a really tough player to guard when you can do both,” Hoffman said.

That ability was particularly evident in back-to-back games against Hiwassee and Alcorn State, when he shot 10-of-11 and 9-of-11 from the free-throw line, respectively.

But he doesn’t only draw fouls; he draws off the court, too, even though he said he hasn’t been able to do so as much since arriving at Mercer.

“Ever since, I’d say, fourth grade, I would always draw just anything — cars,” Rivers said. “The main thing I used to love drawing was cars and cartoon characters like Dragon Ball Z and stuff like that … just making up superheroes.”

I want to get this championship for [Bryan], for our team — all the hard work we’ve been putting in this year — for our senior guy [Leonard]. That’s all I want.”

— Rivers

Rivers was the kryptonite to opposing defenses in recent games against Chattanooga, Wofford and Furman. He led Mercer in scoring in each outing with 20, 22 and 19 points, even though the Bears could not pull out a victory.

Senior guard Phillip Leonard said Rivers hasn’t approached the game differently this year, and he knew the sophomore was capable of playing at this level.

“Everybody else is just finally getting to see it,” he said. “Playing pick-up in the summer, playing pick-up before the season started, he’d have games where he was dominating — like score all seven points or something like that. We all knew he had it in him.”

Not only did Leonard say he trusted Rivers at the start of the season, but he said Mercer now relies on him; they expect this type of production.

And Rivers said he hopes it will lead to hardware this year, something his own childhood idol McGrady was unable to achieve in the NBA.

“I want that ring,” he said, alluding to the prize for winning a SoCon Championship. “I want to get this championship for [Bryan], for our team — all the hard work we’ve been putting in this year — for our senior guy [Leonard]. That’s all I want.”

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