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Gorman: Pitt's rooting for Rivers

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Tuesday, March 8, 2011

The chant started with 43.1 seconds remaining.

We want Rivers! We want Rivers!

Walk-ons are always the fan favorite, the player the crowd wants on the floor at the end of a game -- its victory cigar.

But this wasn't your ordinary game. Pitt had an 11-point lead on Villanova and the Big East championship on the line Saturday afternoon when the calls for Nick Rivers reverberated throughout Petersen Events Center.

Then again, Rivers isn't your ordinary walk-on.

A 21-year-old senior from Phoenix, Rivers came to Pitt on an academic scholarship and served two seasons as a student manager. Rivers originally aspired to be the head student manager like Shamus McNulty, not an emergency backup behind point guard Ashton Gibbs.

"That never entered my mind," Rivers said. "My goal when I first came was to be in Shamus' shoes. Maybe I thought they would give me a jersey, put me in for my last game as a manager. But I got better."

So much better that Rivers was the first Panthers player honored with a framed jersey on Senior Day -- before Gilbert Brown, Gary McGhee and Brad Wanamaker. And Rivers was ready in the final minute, unzipping his warm-up in anticipation that coach Jamie Dixon would put him in the game. Dixon did just that with 33 seconds remaining, allowing Rivers the honor of being on the court as Pitt clinched the Big East title outright.

"It's sort of like a rags-to-riches story," Gibbs said, "going from being manager to walk-on playing in that game."

The Panthers were all rooting for Rivers, from his best friend Gibbs to the manager McNulty. They did everything from handing out towels and water bottles on the bench to serving as practice dummies during drills.

"We do everything but shoot," McNulty cracked. "They don't allow us to embarrass the players."

Instead, Rivers earned their respect in pickup games. He gained confidence in the process, going from a 15-point scorer for a state tournament team at Brophy College Prep to one who sank several 3-pointers in a practice when the Panthers were short of players during finals week. That gave Rivers the courage to walk into Dixon's office in a now-or-never moment in 2009 and ask to replace graduating Ryan Tiesi as one of the team's walk-on guards.

"Being a manager, the coaches don't know how good you are," Rivers said. "You don't get to showcase your abilities."

Soon, Rivers became a SportsCenter staple. ESPN constantly showed clips of him dancing in Pitt's pregame huddle -- until he ran out of moves -- but that underscored the importance of his presence on the Panthers.

"Not only is he the guy that gets us going in the middle before games, but the guy that gets us going in practice," Wanamaker said. "Nobody knows what Nick does behind closed doors. The guy is dedicated to this team."

Gibbs credits Rivers' defensive tenacity for helping him evolve into Pitt's leading scorer and a first-team All-Big East selection. In one-on-one games, Rivers contested every shot, forcing Gibbs to put the ball on the floor.

"That's how I got my game to another level," Gibbs said. "He's a tough guy, and he's talented. I think he could play anywhere in Division I."

Dixon doesn't disagree, if only Rivers would stop catering to the crowd. The Oakland Zoo wants to see him score, but Dixon points to the North Florida game as an example of what Rivers can do. In six minutes, Rivers had three points, three assists, a rebound and a steal. It's why Dixon didn't hesitate to move Rivers into the practice rotation as the third point guard when Gibbs missed three games last month with a knee injury.

"That was our plan," Dixon said. "We prepared for that possibility."

It's also why Dixon offered Rivers a chance to play for the Panthers next season, even though he will earn an economics degree this semester. Dixon doesn't believe in "do-overs," but Rivers has become such an unassuming leader as a mentor to the underclassmen that he could get another Senior Day.

"Whether manager or player, I've been part of some of the greatest teams here," Rivers said. "I know what Coach wants and expects and try to match that every time I step on the court. I try to get that out of the players -- while reminding them to have fun."

The Panthers didn't need a reminder Saturday, when Nick Rivers not only wore a Pitt jersey but the smile of a student who has more than managed to make every moment of his college years extraordinary.

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