BYU women's basketball: Keilani Unga works her way back for senior season after life-changing event

Published: Thursday, Jan. 17 2013 7:15 p.m. MST

Brigham Young Cougars forward Keilani Unga (45) high fives fans after playing against Pepperdine in Provo Saturday, Jan. 12, 2013.

Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

PROVO — The way the nurse said it was simple and small.

"You're pregnant."

But the words wrapped around her, suffocating and life-altering. She was, after all, in the midst of living her dream of playing college basketball at a school that requires its students to abide by very specific ethical and moral rules. On the list of issues that can mean punishment ranging from probation to expulsion is intimacy outside of marriage.

The words shattered any facade she was maintaining.

"I got light-headed, everything just stopped," said then 20-year-old Keilani Moeaki. "I just started crying. I was totally shocked. I was wearing my BYU stuff, and she asked me, 'Do you play sports?' "

Humiliated and terrified, Moeaki acknowledged she was a starter for BYU's basketball team. The rest of the appointment was a blur. Questions pummeled her as she made her way out of the office and back to her apartment.

"What am I going to do? Who am I going to tell?" she said. "I was stumbling through it."

When she arrived home, she immediately called her boyfriend, who was also an athlete — BYU's all-time leading rusher, Harvey Unga.

She sobbed as she told him.

"He wasn't sad at all," she said, shaking her head a little. "He was really excited. He gave me a big hug, and somehow that comforted me."

Unga suggested they call their bishop first. Moeaki agreed.

It would be another month before they would muster the courage to tell their coaches, their teammates and their parents. They would endure the searing heat of the spotlight, the devastation of being forced to withdraw from school, and the loneliness of living thousands of miles away from each other as they tried to pick up the pieces of their shattered dreams.

Keilani Unga wasn't sure she wanted to follow two of her brothers to BYU. It was so far away from her Warrenville, Ill., home, and the thought of having her parents at every game was appealing. She committed to Marquette, but she agreed to visit BYU's campus because the teenager relished the idea of a trip.

"I loved it," she said, her smile warm and friendly. "I met the team; we went to a football game, and it was just more my style, more laid back. When we got on the plane, I told my mom, 'I think I want to come here.' She was happy."

Her father, Sione, was a health teacher and tennis coach so all five of the Moeaki children learned to play tennis.

"I didn't start basketball until the fourth grade," she said. "I decided to do it because all of my friends were doing it. When I tried out for the team in sixth grade, I didn't know how to do a layup."

Athletic and hard working, she quickly showed such promise that a traveling team coach added her to his roster, and basketball became her passion. She started getting letters from colleges when she was a sophomore — one of those interested was BYU.

"She was really talented," said BYU coach Jeff Judkins. "She had a lot of ability that we needed. She could get to the basket, and she was a really aggressive, smart player. She was probably the most highly sought-after recruit of that class."

Like many Mormon young people, even if she didn't aspire to go to BYU, she loved the school owned by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Her parents were graduates, and when two of her brothers became Cougars, those ties to the school grew stronger.

It was not love at first sight — at least for Keilani.

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