Bruins eye title defense
The 6-foot-7 freshman Isaiah White is a rebounding force for the Bruins. (Scott Fineshriber/SLCC athletics)
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The Salt Lake Community College mens basketball team at is the defending national junior college champion, but looking around the locker room of this season’s team there isn’t one member of that champion team. Despite that, the Bruins have not lost a step and hope to repeat last season's magic.
“Our battle is to get better within ourselves, head coach Todd Phillips said. “We have a team that is learning to play together, and sometimes it is a mystery of what we need to do. This team is night-and-day different. We have no returners from last season. We have a lot of talent, but they are young, and most of them are just out of high school.”
The Bruins are in second place in the Scenic West Athletic Conference. They are 6-3 and are coming off a disappointing 75-74 loss to Utah State Eastern. Freshman Chris Gray missed two critical free throws with six seconds remaining in the loss. The team had trailed by as many as nine points with six minutes remaining. Freshman Dalven Brushier scored eight points, including two three-pointers, to cut into the Eagles lead, but they were unable to secure the victory.
“We have some big-time athletes,” Phillips said. “Some of them can jump out of the gym. Chris (Gray) is an extremely athletic kid. He plays to his emotion. When his motor is going hot, he is a beast. We are working to help him take the next step in his game. When he is coming at you, it is scary sometimes.”
Gray and fellow freshman Isaiah White lead the team in scoring. Gray is a 6-foot-6 forward with an impressive vertical jump. White stands 6-foot-7 and, although he is less imposing, he finds a way to the hoop. Both average 13 points per game. White scored 26 points in a preseason game against Pima Community College. Gray leads the team in field goal percentage at 56 percent.
“I think all my baskets are little high-flying,” Gray said. “We’ve got to close games out and find the hot hand and run with that. Our goal is to get to the national tournament.”
Bench play has been a key to the team's success. Freshman Matt Conway, from Pleasant Grove High School and 2014 Deseret News 5A most valuable player, returned from an LDS mission to anchor the Bruins’ bench. Against Colorado Northwestern, he pitched in a season-high 37 points, one point shy of a Bruin record.
“That was a breakout game for Matt,” Phillips said. “He is figuring it out and how to play with the team. It has been great to see him play well.”
The Bruins will close out their season by hosting the SWAC mens basketball tournament March 2-4. The NJCAA national championship is scheduled for March 20 in Hutchinson, Kansas.
In Phillips’ six seasons, he has helped move 30 players onto four-year schools to continue playing basketball. Phillips said the chemistry is difficult when the team is different every year, but they are coming together.
“We are all friends,” Conway said. “I need to come out aggressive every night. We definitely want to get the rebound and get out and run.”
“We have a lot of Division I connections, and I feel some of the best facilities in the country,” Phillips said. “Salt Lake is a great place. We also work hard with Utah kids.”
Phillips had served as an assistant at SLCC before being hired as its head coach. He also coached at Westminster College.