Best friends join forces at U

Shayne Mullaney and Jackie Johnson have a strong bond on and off the basketball court.

Senior Gopher momens basketball teammates Shayne Mullaney, left, and Jackie Johnson, right, have played together since high school in Eden Prairie.

Emily Dunker

Senior Gopher momens basketball teammates Shayne Mullaney, left, and Jackie Johnson, right, have played together since high school in Eden Prairie.

Betsy Helfand

Shayne Mullaney and Jackie Johnson have been playing basketball together since they were in sixth grade.

Now freshmen on the Gophers women’s basketball team, the two best friends have the opportunity to play together for four more years.

And they know that’s a rare opportunity.

“I’ve never really heard of best friends being able to play a college [Division] I sport together,” Johnson said. “Once I decided, I knew it was such a great decision.”

Mullaney, a 5-foot-10-inch guard, committed to play at Minnesota first.

Mullaney’s brother, Mark Mullaney Jr., played football at the University of Minnesota.

“It’s kind of a family thing,” Shayne Mullaney said. “Once they offered, it was a no-brainer for me because I knew this was where I wanted to be.”

Mullaney and Johnson played for four years together at Eden Prairie High School. Mullaney said she told Johnson “it would be really special to carry over what we had at Eden Prairie … to college.”

Johnson, a 6-foot-2-inch forward, said she thought she was likely headed to California for school.

“When it came down to my final decision, I just realized that the U is a great place, right in the heart of the city, [and] there’s so many things to do here,” Johnson said.

She said she didn’t feel pressure from Mullaney to come to school with her.

“She respected our friendship and just wanted me to do what was best for me,” Johnson said. “And it ended up being here.”

Both players said one of the factors leading them to Minnesota was its proximity to their hometown.

Gophers head coach Pam Borton said the coaches looked at both players individually.

“It wasn’t, ‘Oh, we’ve got to get them both, we’ve got to take a package deal here,’” Borton said. “I think they’re both elite players.”

The duo saw both personal and team success at Eden Prairie.

They participated in the state tournament twice, and during their junior year, they lost in the Minnesota State High School League’s Class AAAA state championship.

Mullaney sits atop Eden Prairie’s lists for career points (1,462) and assists (466).

Johnson is second with 1,460 points. She ranks first in the program with 888 rebounds and 254 blocks.

“They’re two of the better kids in the region,” Borton said. “They’re a good fit for our program.”

Sophomore captain Rachel Banham said the two players have the “same style” and were very “fundamental players.”

“When they play ball screens, you can tell they have that little click,” Banham said. “They know where each other is going to be.”

Both Mullaney and Johnson said coming to college with their best friend helped aid their transition on the court.

“I just know exactly what she’s doing, where she’s going to be and what I’m going to expect from her every day,” Johnson said.

But their friendship extends beyond the hardwood. As teammates and roommates, the two are around each other often.

“It’s just a huge comfort to know that I always have a friend there for me,” Mullaney said. “Just someone to lean on — she’s kind of a mother to me.”

Johnson said she kind of feels like Mullaney’s “little protector” and she’s “known as her mother figure.”

When Minnesota opens its regular season Nov. 10, the two players will likely have different roles than they had at Eden Prairie. But Johnson said they’ve pushed themselves against each other to be better since they were little.

And college is unlikely to change that.

“It’s almost like having a family member away from my family,” Johnson said. “I think we push each other even when we’re not trying to … to be better in all areas of life.”