Nine LDS on two `Final Four' teams

When two of this year's premier basketball teams take to the hardwood March 28 in San Antonio, Texas, in the NCAA Final Four tournament, nine members of the Church - including five returned missionaries - will be playing in the big tournament.

Seven play for the University of Utah team, while two play for Stanford University. Of the nine players, three start for their respective teams, including Alex Jensen and Drew Hansen for the Utah Utes, and Mark Madsen for the Stanford Cardinal.Returned missionaries on the Stanford squad are Madsen who served in Spain and David Bennion who served in Italy. The Utes who served missions are Jensen, in England; Greg Barratt, in Italy; and Adam Sharp, in Puerto Rico.

Hansen, a starting forward who is known as the defensive demon, joined the Church while a player at Utah.

Other LDS players at Utah are Trace Caton, Jon Carlisle and Britton Johnsen, whose brother, Jeff, is a member of the Utah team and currently on a mission.

While all have contributed significantly to their teams' success, it was Madsen's basket in the Midwest Regional title game that made the highlight reels across the country.

His basket came during a crucial inbounds play when the ball was stripped from an opposing player. The ball bounced loose near the opponents' basket when Madsen - in one motion - stretched to scoop up the ball, then spun to the hoop where he slam dunked the ball and was fouled.

The basket and foul shot proved to be a decisive moment in the game. It not only capped a stirring comeback that gave Stanford the lead in the waning seconds of the game, but also thrust the sophomore from Danville, Calif., into the national limelight.

"Mark's so humble," said Alonzo Gaskill, director of the Palo Alto Institute of Religion near the campus of Stanford University in California. "He is a pure soul with a warm, loving personality."

Of his mission, Madsen said, "I loved my mission. I love the Spanish people and loved sharing the gospel with them."

At the encouragement of his college coach, Madsen opted to fill a mission before playing for Stanford.

He said mission president, Garth Wakefield, who had been a coach, promised him that if he would strive to serve the Lord, he would be blessed in his basketball endeavors, even though he would go through a period of not being able to run or jump very [effectively] when he first returned home.

"My testimony is the most important thing to me," Madsen said. "I love basketball, but my testimony of Jesus Christ far, far exceeds anything basketball has to offer."

For Jensen, a starting forward for Utah, choosing to fill a mission was a matter of following the prophet.

After his freshman year at Utah, he considered President Ezra Taft Benson's call that every worthy young man go on a mission, and realized that the decision had been made.

"I had a great mission," he said. "It helped me mature. It helped with mental toughness. I'm less bothered by little things, like cheap shots, that tend to disrupt."

Playing on a team like the University of Utah where much is demanded from athletes, both physically and academically, has required a focus and concentration on priorities.

"I'm committed to attending Church," he said, even after arriving home late from a road trip the night before.

After facing Arizona, a team the Utes beat to get into the Final Four, and as they prepare for powerful North Carolina, Jensen said he feels some affinity with the Book of Mormon prophet Abinadi.

"He was all alone," Jensen said, "but he didn't back down. I find a lot of similarities considering the odds."

In addition to Utah, Stanford and North Carolina, Kentucky is in the Final Four. The Utes return to the Final Four after a 32-year absence, while the Cardinal broke a 56-year drought.

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