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Provo • When BYU women's basketball coach Jeff Judkins recruited Makenzi Morrison out of Sandy's Alta High School in 2012, he figured he was getting a solid role player, an average defender and a brilliant student with a 3.98 grade point average who could excel more in the school's rigorous academic environment than on the hardwoods.
Boy, was he wrong.
The former Parade All-American, now known as Makenzi Morrison Pulsipher after she married Cougar linebacker Adam Pulsipher last summer, is doing fine in the classroom, having recently been named to the West Coast Conference All-Academic Team along with teammate Lexi Eaton Rydalch. Pulsipher has a 3.42 GPA in recreation management.
But the junior has surpassed expectations on the court. She has emerged as a star on both ends and is a candidate for all-league honors, maybe even WCC Defensive Player of the Year.
"She is a lot better than I thought she would be," Judkins said last week.
And so are the Cougars in 2015-16. Behind the leadership of league MVP candidate Rydalch, Kalani Purcell and Pulsipher, BYU (23-4, 15-1) has clinched the WCC regular-season title and is on a 15-game winning streak.
The Cougars are starting to get national attention, too. They broke into the USA Today Coaches Poll at No. 22 this week and are receiving votes in the Associated Press Top 25 poll. They have an RPI of 12, and are projected as a No. 6 seed for the NCAA Tournament in Charlie Creme's Bracketology for ESPN.
"This team has a lot of different weapons," Judkins said. "As a coach, that makes it nice. I try to take advantage of what we can do against the other teams."
One of those weapons is Pulsipher, who is averaging 12.8 points per game, second-best on the team behind Rydalch (24.6 ppg.). Pulsipher made seven 3-pointers in BYU's 65-44 win at Saint Mary's a few weeks ago and leads the team in steals, 2.3 per game.
"Makenzi is the best defender in the league, and I think she's the best shooter in the league," Judkins said. "People have done a nice job of trying to not let her score, but she scores anyway. She has done a lot better job this season of realizing what she has to do to get her shots off."
Pulsipher said the key to her improvement has been to not rest upon her laurels.
"It is easy to say you have a scholarship out of high school, and being satisfied with that," she said. "We talk about being more than the player that you were coming in. For me, that's been a goal every year. Each year my role changes. Whether it is a passer or a shooter, or a defensive player, or all of that. I think I will always be that defensive player that our team needs, and I am so happy to do that because I like it.
"I just keep practicing and building off my strengths and molding into the team," she continued. "I try to focus on what I am good at and things I can do to get better, and build off those, and don't fight to be something that I am not."
Morrison moved to Draper from California's Bay Area with her family when she was in the sixth grade. When Judkins first approached her about playing for BYU, she was initially puzzled because she thought only members of the Mormon church could attend the school owned and operated by that faith. But that misconception was quickly cleared up, and the place grew on her the more she researched it while setting records at Alta and becoming a three-time 5A MVP. Her parents Terry and Shelly Morrison liked the school's standards and proximity, she said, and she committed to the first coach who offered her a Division I scholarship.
She was baptized by Judkins a few years ago, and met Adam Pulsipher, a returned missionary, in an accounting class last year. She said marriage hasn't changed her competitive fire.
"It has only gotten better, as far as having that support," she said. "We don't compete against each other, because we are too competitive. We do compare bruises, but we always like to be on the same team."
And Judkins likes having her on his team, especially since she's proving him wrong.
About Makenzi Morrison Pulsipher
• Three-time Class 5A MVP at Alta High School, and a Parade All-American in 2012
• Married BYU linebacker Adam Pulsipher last summer
• Averaging 12.8 points and 2.3 steals per game for WCC champion Cougars