HIGHLAND HEIGHTS, Ky. -- Some of the Bellarmine fans taunted D.J. Rivera as he prepared for a courtside interview after leading his team to the championship game. The senior point guard smiled broadly and waved his hands next to his ears.

Nothing was going to rattle him.

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Rivera scored 23 points and led a closing run that swept Montevallo to a 79-72 victory against the defending champions in the second semifinal on Thursday night -- his best moment yet in the tournament spotlight.

Rivera played at Binghamton in 2008-09, led the American East Conference in scoring, and had 20 points in an opening-round loss to Duke in the NCAA tournament.

“You can’t compare this,” said Rivera, a nephew of the late Hank Gathers from Loyola Marymount. “This is the best time of my life right now, no matter where I am.”

Rivera has a soft left-handed shot, just like his late uncle, and put it to use in the second half to make the difference in a tight game. Montevallo (29-7) plays Western Washington for the championship on Saturday. Both teams will be making their first appearance in the title game.

Bellarmine (29-4) was trying to become the first team to win back-to-back titles since Cal State-Bakersfield in 1993-94. The Knights let a close game slip away by going nearly eight minutes without scoring, when Rivera and the Falcons turned each miss into a fast-break chance.

“When you take a quick shot or have a quick turnover against a team like that, there’s no defense for that,” Bellarmine coach Scott Davenport said.

Bellarmine had the home-court advantage, able to bring its pep band, cheerleaders and a large contingent of fans from nearby Louisville. Plus, the Knights were 4-0 at the Bank of Kentucky Center.

They couldn’t keep up with the much quicker Falcons, who hit some 3s in the first half and forced the Knights to extend their defense. That created openings for Rivera, who took full advantage.

You can’t compare this,” said Rivera, a nephew of the late Hank Gathers from Loyola Marymount. “This is the best time of my life right now, no matter where I am.
-- Montevallo's D.J. Rivera

“Coach told me all year long, `You can get in the paint on any team we play,’ " Rivera said.

Coach Danny Young made some adjustments in his offense to create room for his guards.

“We changed the way we were running our offense, and these guys ran it to perfection and we got a lot of easy baskets,” Young said. “I think it finally wore on them down the stretch.”

The quicker Falcons pushed the pace and blew open a back-and-forth game -- four ties, 10 lead changes -- in the last eight minutes.

Braydon Hobbs’ 3-pointer cut Montevallo’s lead to 62-60 with 8:32 to go. The Knights wouldn’t score again until Jelani Johnson hit a baseline jumper with 44 seconds left. The Knights missed 13 shots and had a pair of turnovers during the decisive stretch.

Chris Dowe led Bellarmine with 18 points and nine rebounds.

Bellarmine was missing starting guard Keiston Jones, who hurt his left knee in the quarterfinals and will have an MRI on Monday. Forward Luke Sprague played his second consecutive game with an injured right shoulder that had sidelined him for two games. Sprague had nine points and two rebounds.

“Luke was trying to shoot left-handed layups from the right side of the basket,” Davenport said. “He’s a hurting young man.”

Montevallo dominated in rebounds 43-28, taking advantage of Bellarmine’s biggest weakness. The Falcons got 12 offensive rebounds and 13 second-chance points.

“We’ve talked about it since day one, since Sept. 5,” said Bellarmine’s Braydon Hobbs, who had 13 points. “It hurts, but it got us.”