December 9, 2023

SLCC men’s basketball team stuns nation by winning NJCAA title


This archived article was written by: Brett Smart

After a stunning performance at the Region 18 tournament and a victory in the district playoff, unranked Salt Lake Community College set their sights on the NJCAA Finals Tournament in Hutchinson, Kan., last week
Before this, SLCC struggled in the region, finishing third going into the SWAC tournament. SLCC had to figure something out quick to extend the life of their season. “The players figured it out during a pre-practice meeting one day, with (Conner) Toolson describing the theme as, ‘We’ve got to change something, because this isn’t working.’ The coaches rebuilt the team’s confidence,” according to the Salt Lake Tribune.
The team emerged at the Region 18 tournament with a new life, dominating each game by 25.6 points. Their win against North Idaho College came as a surprise to most. SLCC was 0-3 against the 33-0 NIC, who were ranked third in the nation. That didn’t seem to matter to Tyler Rawson of SLCC, who scored 22 points and topped the team off with four consecutive free-throws, ending the game 86-73 and taking the region 18 title for SLCC.
Eastern fans remember going overtime with the Bruins and losing 89-93, falling just short of a better spot in the SWAC tournament, perhaps even a title.
SLCC moved on to the district playoff, facing Cochise College from Arizona. Rawson set the tone with a dunk after the tip. SLCC maintained dominance over Cochise as Gibson Johnson scored 30 points and Rawson recovered 11 rebounds, winning the game 99-73.
In the NJCAA tournament, the Bruins took out Northeast Mississippi in the first round 77-64. Connor Toolson led the team with 16 points. The Bruins had extended their season another day.
SLCC played the next day against Odessa, the Bruins took the game from the number-four seeded team. Their upsetting win is one of many that occurred in the Bruins’ post-season. The score was led by Tad Dufelmeier scoting 23 points. The Bruins finished strong in the second game, defeating Odessa 92-86.
In the next round, the Bruins continued their post-season campaign, driving through the NJCAA quarter finals against Southwest Tennessee 105-76 in a stunning display of athletic commitment. Tennessee had scraped for an upset against North Idaho College 73-72, but SLCC had carried their momentum from Odessa. Rawson scored 23 points and Toolson scored 18.
Gillete Community College was next on SLCC’s hit-list. The way had been paved for SLCC to make the finals after NIC was eliminated. Gillete was a bigger target being ranked eighth in the tournament, but SLCC was blowing through like an avalanche. Toolson scored 20 points, Johnson scored 14 and Rawson scored 17 with 11 rebounds. Their teamwork resulted in a crushing victory over Gilete 83-47.
The NJCAA finals were played between SLCC and their host, Hutchinson Community College. Hutchison came off an upset against second-rated Northwest Florida State 116-90 in the quarter finals, but struggled against Ranger in the semifinals winning 84-81.
When SLCC met Hutchinson in the finals, SLCC took the lead and ran for the first half 42-27. SLCC seemed to relax in the second half, scoring less as Hutchinson worked to close the gap. Bashir Ahmed of Hutchinson scored 22 points, but it wasn’t enough to close the gap SLCC created.
Toolson and Rawson were at the top of their game, with Toolson scoring 28 points and Rawson gaining 11 rebounds. SLCC ended the tournament winning 74-64 over Hutchinson, effectively “shushing the crowd,” as Coach Todd Philips put it.
This is the fourth season in a row that Conner Toolson has ended in a championship. “‘I guess it’s getting to be a little bit normal for me,’ Toolson said. ‘But I know it’s not normal,’” reported the Salt Lake Tribune. Three of those championed years were spent at Lone Peak High School, where Toolson and his team won three consecutive state titles, and this year, a national title with SLCC. Toolson is signed to play with UVU next season as a sophomore.