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SLCC men advance to NJCAA tournament, and former Ute/Aggie Silas Mills couldn't be happier

TAYLORSVILLE — Silas Mills has fond memories of the first time the Salt Lake Community College men’s basketball team made it to “Hutch,” the nickname for the national junior college tournament held in Hutchinson, Kansas.

That happened in 1994 when Mills, the former Utah and Utah State player and current SLCC assistant coach, led the Bruins to a fifth-place finish in the school’s debut on the NJCAA’s biggest hoops stage. He earned all-tournament honors back then.

“That was like dinosaur ages then,” Mills said, laughing. “That was ‘93-94. That’s a long time ago.”

One thing that’s changed since that prehistoric period: the Bruins and their powerhouse program are now almost expected to qualify for the national tourney every year.

Thanks to a sloppy-but-gutsy 89-86 win over Arizona Western on Saturday night, the Bruins earned their seventh trip to the NJCAAs after wrapping up the SWAC championship and the District I title in consecutive weekends.

The Bruins (30-3) likely would have received an at-large bid thanks to their No. 7 ranking and Scenic West Athletic Conference tournament title, but this victory ensured that they’ll head back to Hutchinson, Kansas, for the sixth time in 11 years.

SLCC won a national championship — the school’s second — the last time it made it to Hutch in 2016.

“We didn’t go last year,” SLCC coach Todd Phillips said. “It’s a big accomplishment for these kids to get back there.”

The Bruins needed a last-second, game-winning 3-pointer from Kearns High product Bushmen Ebet last Saturday to edge their rivals, the College of Southern Idaho, in the SWAC championship game and had to hold on tight after seeing a 14-point lead evaporate in the second half against the Matadors.

Christian Gray of San Bernardino, California, led SLCC with 18 points and seven rebounds, Ebet added 17 points and four steals, and Puerto Rican guard Josh Colon contributed 16 points in the victory.

“I always told myself when I come back I’m about to get another ring, so here it goes,” said Ebet, who sat out last season — when SLCC went 21-10 and was eliminated by CSI in the SWAC tourney — after being a sixth-man contributor on the 2016 national championship squad. “That was my number one goal — get back (to Hutch) and just be the best player on this team.”

Mills knows all about coming back to accomplish big things after a temporary setback. An athletic forward from Milwaukee, Mills ended up at SLCC in the 1993-94 season after his time with Rick Majerus at the University of Utah ended almost as quickly as it began. Mills went on to have a strong couple of years at Utah State under then-head coach Larry Eustachy before thriving in a pro career overseas.

SLCC gave him a second chance to begin his collegiate career in the 1990s, and he credits his junior college alma mater — and specifically retired athletic director Norma Carr — for giving him an opportunity to begin his coaching career.

“This is awesome. This is the whole journey of life for me. I love it,” Mills said. “Thank you Miss Carr for bringing my butt, telling me to get here and get on this bench and help coach. Miss Norma was the first one who said, ‘Get your degree and get your butt over here.’ I appreciate her for that.”

Mills finished up his degree at USU — majoring in Interdisciplinary Studies — and has been on Bruins' bench for five seasons. The former basketball star credits former SLCC coach Norm Parrish, now the Westminster coach, and his current boss for building a program that makes trips to the NJCAA tournament a regular occurrence.

“Coach Parrish laid the foundation,” Mills said. “Coach Todd took the blueprint, and we’re running with it.”

Phillips, who played for Snow College, was Parrish’s assistant for three years and has been the bench boss for six seasons.

“I think Norm Parrish built that foundation, and part of my legacy is try to build on what he started,” Phillips said. “I think he gave us a reputation and now throughout the country they know basketball is really good here and we put some kids in Division I. We get kids to buy in and accept their roles, and they’ve done that.”

This will be the fourth time SLCC will be in the NJCAAs during Phillips’ head coaching tenure. The Bruins find out Monday who they play in the March 19-24 tournament.

“The goal in Hutch,” Phillips said, “is to win it.”

Ebet said that’s motivated him since SLCC won it two years ago. It's what Gray has his mind set on, too.

“To get another ring, that’s it,” Ebet said. “We’re going for the championship. We got it.”

“We’re in. We’ve got to show them what we can do,” Gray added. “Championship, championship, championship. That’s all we want.”

Players said similar things when Mills and his teammates qualified for the first time 24 years ago, but, in reality, SLCC was thrilled simply to be there for the first time. Ages and dinosaur extinctions later, Mills is just thrilled to be able to contribute to the school’s success again.

“I owe everything to this place. This place gave me my second chance if you know my history coming from Utah,” Mills said. “It’s an awesome feeling being around good people, and good things always happen.”

They're all hoping one more good thing happens on March 24.