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

"I told her I wanted her to earn her degree," he said, an offer that stood whether she ever played basketball again or not. "It did hurt me because it hurts the program. I've always been a strong believer in the honor code, but also in second chances. … The one thing we try to do is set players in the right direction, but also let them be themselves. That's how you learn."

Her family flew in because her brother, Tony Moeaki, a tight end for Iowa, was being drafted that weekend. Because the couple withdrew from school, they were eligible to return to BYU in a year. But Keilani wasn't thinking about returning; she was trying to decide whether she wanted to be a wife and a mother — or just a mother.

She returned home to Illinois with her family and she and Harvey talked as he tried to decide whether to return to BYU in 2012 or declare for the NFL's supplemental draft. She delivered Jackson Unga on the same weekend Harvey was meeting with the Chicago Bears.

"A week later we flew back to Utah, and seriously, with like two days planning, we had our wedding in the backyard of our bishop," she said. "The next week Harvey found out he was drafted by the Bears."

Keilani threw herself into motherhood, while her husband fought for a spot on the Bears' roster.

But she had unfinished business.

"I wasn't unhappy, but I was sad," she said. "Because I did want to play basketball."

So the couple began to talk about returning to Utah after the NFL season and enrolling at BYU so Keilani could finish her basketball career and earn her degree.

Before she had a chance to really embrace that future, she found out she was pregnant again — this time with Leila.

"OK, well that's the end of the dream," said Lose of finding out her daughter was pregnant with her second child.

Judkins had the same thoughts.

"I thought she would come back," he said. "Keilani is the kind of person that when she tells you she's going to do something, she does it. When she got pregnant with the second child, I thought she'd finish school, but I thought basketball was over."

Even Keilani thought a second pregnancy might end her dream of playing her senior season. The one person who held out hope is the man who'd loved her from the time he met her — Harvey.

"There was no doubt in my mind that she could play again," said Harvey, who signed a two-year extension with the Bears at the end of this season. "I was pushing her to keep trying. Some thought it was me being na?e, but I know her, and if she commits to something in her mind and her heart, she will do it. It's something I have always admired about her."

She delivered Leila on Aug. 5, 2011. She enrolled at BYU two weeks later. Harvey's mom watched her children while she attended classes. Life was moving forward and she was happy.

It was playing pick-up games that convinced her she should give her dream one more shot. Judkins said he'd help her navigate the NCAA's rules that allow players to save a year of eligibility for injury, illness and pregnancy. She used her redshirt and maternity years and announced to the team in May 2012 that she'd return for her senior season in 2012-2013.

"Everyone started cheering," she said laughing. "Everyone was so supportive, especially Harvey and my mom."

Lose Moeaki is retired and told her daughter she'd move to Utah for a year and help with the children. Havey's family also helps, but Judkins acknowledges that were it not for Lose, he doesn't think Keilani could be playing Division I basketball right now.

"I wanted to have no regrets," said Keilani. "I wanted to be an example to my children."

She wanted to show them that even if you make mistakes, even life-altering mistakes, there is a way back. She's starting for BYU as they embark on their second season in the WCC. Judkins called Keilani "the best defender in the league" and said her leadership has been invaluable this season.

Juggling it all isn't easy, but it's worth it, which is evident as she holds a tired 2-year-old Jackson, kissing and talking softly to him as she patiently signs autographs after a home game.

She is grateful for forgiveness, and said motherhood has brought her more joy than she could have imagined. It is what those who know her best admire most about her.

"She's tough as nails," said Harvey. "I knew that from the moment I met her. But seeing how she is with our kids and school and basketball, it's more motivating to me than ever. I go through things that are tough, but nothing like her. She's an inspiration for me. My respect for her has grown tremendously. She's a great mom and I so much appreciate the way she is."

Adds Judkins, "Sometimes when you don't have something, you have more appreciation for it. Keilani brings her personality and toughness to this team. I wanted her to have no regrets, so I'm really happy for her."

Whether this was the path she needed to travel or not, Lose Moeaki isn't sure.

"I don't know if it was meant to be," Lose said as the baby jabbers in the background. "I think she made the best of her situation."

email: adonaldson@desnews.com TWITTER: adonsports

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