PROVO — It seemed like a natural pipeline if your name was Johnsen: play basketball at Murray High, earn accolades and sign on with the University of Utah. It worked first for Jeff Johnsen and then younger brother Britton, who between the two shared three Utah Mr. Basketball honors going on to star for the Utes at the Huntsman Center.
But when it came to little sister Melinda, the Johnsen hoops pipeline took a sudden turn south. The baby of the seven-sibling family is starting and starring not for Utah but its rival, leading nationally-ranked BYU in assists and steals and tonight looking to help the Cougars to their first regular-season series sweep of Utah in four years and only the second since 1993.
A 5-foot-6 junior small forward, Melinda Johnsen has survived the scrutiny of sharing a well-recognized hoops name — "it's something I've got to live up to," she says — as well as the razzing of taking a different direction than her older brothers.
"BYU was something I wanted — it's more than just a name, it's who you're playing for and who you're playing with."
The Johnsen clan has relocated from the Huntsman Center to the Marriott Center and realigned current allegiances. While family ties are stronger than university bonds, the change isn't without some awkwardness, admits Jeff.
He points to last month's BYU-Utah women's game — an intense back-and-forth game won by the Cougars on a buzzer-beater.
"When you're watching 'the red' get beat and you're cheering," he said, "it's really a weird feeling."
A real estate agent and second-year Murray High assistant coach, Jeff is a regular at Melinda's BYU games. Britton is a less-frequent attendee, since his brief NBA stints (Orlando, New Orleans, Indiana) and time in the NBDL and CBA the past two seasons and his employer this year — Etosa Alicante of the Spanish League — have kept him occupied.
It's a reversal of roles for the siblings, as Melinda — six years younger than Britton and his twin Brandon — grew up tagging along with her brothers to pick-up games, shooting hoops on the sidelines and later working the Murray High bench as a water girl for the brothers' teams.
In a roundabout way, the two U. brothers helped pave Melinda's road to Provo. Jeff Judkins, the current BYU women's head coach, was an assistant coach for the Utah men's team when the Johnsens played with the Utes, so the connection and mutual admiration was already established.
Judkins got the early jump on recruiting Melinda, a two-year all-state selection at Murray, and signed her before her senior season. Not a prolific scorer, she boasted an all-around game, averaging 15 points, seven rebounds and five assists her final year.
"She did all the little things — kinda like Britton and I did," said Jeff, adding that her signing with BYU "was kind of a no-brainer for her."
Just as signing with Utah over BYU and others was for him and his brother several years previous.
She's still not a scorer but has improved under Judkins. Her offensive diversity was evidenced last week by her 10 first-half points against then-No. 16 New Mexico, ranging from a nifty under-the-basket reverse layup to a top-of-the-arc trey.
However, she's content to let others score, adamant about contributing in other ways and expecting the top defensive assignment each game.
"I want my assists, I want the steals — I want that part of my game," she said. "I feel like I can stop anybody, and that confidence helps . . . I love the whole game, instead of being only an offensive-minder player."
Judkins has emphasized over the years that he wanted Melinda for her play — not for her name nor her brothers' sakes. "I knew she'd be a really good piece of our team's puzzle," he said.
But he also saw the family resemblance — "a good mix" of Jeff's toughness and aggressiveness and Britton's all-around game and in-control court presence.
"She's our MVP," he added. "If I lost her, it would really hurt."