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Utah-Hawaii game showcases former national championship teammates at SLCC

SALT LAKE CITY — Hawaii’s Gibson Johnson and Utah’s Tyler Rawson helped Salt Lake Community College win a national championship in 2016. They became good friends and even shared an apartment along the way.

Common ground also includes being Utah high school graduates. Johnson went to Viewmont and Rawson attended American Fork. Neither, though, was highly recruited before their success at SLCC.

Now, they’re both starters and seniors at college basketball’s highest level — second-leading scorers on their teams as a matter of fact.

“We both had a goal to play at a major, Division I. We stuck to it and in the end it ended up working out for us,” Rawson said. “We’ve been blessed with good health and being able to showcase our talents in ways that teams have wanted us. The fits that we’ve found with Hawaii and Utah couldn’t have been better for us.”

On Saturday, Johnson and Rawson square off in the Huntsman Center. The Rainbow Warriors (4-1) and Utes (5-1) tip off at 5 p.m.

Although the teams faced off last year in the Diamond Head Classic — with Utah prevailing 66-52 — this will be the first (and most likely last) meeting between Johnson and Rawson as collegiate players up on the hill.

“It definitely is a dream come true,” Johnson said. “I’ve been dreaming of playing in that arena since I was a little kid.”

Utes on the air

Hawaii (4-1) at Utah (5-1)

Huntsman Center

Saturday, 5 p.m.

TV: Pac-12 Networks

Radio: ESPN 700AM

Rawson understands the significance of it.

“This one will be a lot more special. It’s going to be the last time for us as we’re both seniors that we’ll be able to go head-to-head,” he said. “Who knows what the roads are for us after this.”

This path is paved with a strong friendship and the bond of winning a championship together.

“We’re really close and it’s going to be super competitive,” Johnson said. “We’re probably lucky that we don’t have to guard each other. But I’m really excited to play with him. Tyler’s a great guy and he’s fun to play against on the floor.”

The players keep in touch regularly. Same goes for the SLCC championship squad, which operates a group Snapchat.

“It’s going to be fun. We’ve already been talking some talk to each other about who’s going to win and whatnot,” Rawson said of Saturday’s game against Johnson. “It was a lot of fun last year playing against him when we were out in Hawaii. But it’ll be even better with him coming home.”

Rawson added that it should be a good battle. Johnson, who is 6-foot-8, averages 12.8 points and 5.8 rebounds. He had a team-high 19 points in Monday’s 87-77 win over Adams State.

Rawson, a 6-foot-10 forward, is currently averaging 10.8 points and 6.5 rebounds.

“I’m pleased with Ty. He’s been a warrior for us,” said Utah coach Larry Krystkowiak. “I don’t think he’s missed a practice and he’s put on some nice, lean mass in the offseason.”

SLCC coach Todd Phillips isn’t surprised that Johnson and Rawson are succeeding since moving on.

“No, not those two. Sometimes guys get over recruited or they’re a good player at this level, but both of those guys kind of fit the next level,” Phillips said. “Division I, they’re both physical, they’ve got high IQs, so they can figure out what their coaches need them to do and get themselves on the floor.”

Phillips acknowledged that Johnson and Rawson made a big impact with the Bruins.

“Absolutely. Both of them were huge — in everything from scoring and rebounding to just being in the right spot all the time,” he explained. “They were both big-time for us.“

There are a lot of fond memories, Phillips recalled, from winning the championship to their different personalities. He said Johnson was very outgoing and a smart, intellectual kid when it comes to basketball and the world, Phillips said Rawson has a good feel to be in the right spot to do the right things, He also praised his passing and rebounding.

There is mutual respect. Rawson said Phillips and SLCC did a great job prepping players for the next level.

“I’ve got to give him all the credit because he got us prepared and set up his program like it is for any Division I program,” Rawson continued.

Then, there’s the championship.

“A lot of people can’t say they’re national champions. It was a great honor to be able to do it,” Rawson said. “We had a great little duo together that made it possible for us to accomplish that feat.”

Johnson said the title created a sense of family and brotherhood.

“We were already close like a lot of teams get,” he expounded. “But to accomplish something like that really brought us all closer together.”

When it was over, Johnson spoke with the U. but fielded more interest locally from Utah State and Utah Valley. Ultimately, he considered offers from Hawaii, North Carolina State and UVU — choosing to go with a gut feeling and sign with the program that showed interest in him from day one.

“I’m really happy that I’m here. I feel like it was a real good fit for me,” Johnson said. “Who knows if it was the best fit, but if it wasn’t it’s got to be pretty close to the top. I love it out here. The culture is great and playing for Hawaii is fun. Living in Hawaii is great.”

So, too, he exclaimed, is coming home.