PROVO — With her collegiate career coming to a close, BYU's Kalani Purcell has met and even exceeded what women's basketball coach Jeff Judkins thought she'd become when first watching her play live for the first time.
The occasion was Purcell's prep team from New Zealand embarking on a playing tour in states such as California, Arizona and Texas. While in Texas, Judkins made his way out to see what the 6-foot-2 Purcell brought to the court.
"There was no doubt. All you had to see was a little bit and you could tell right away that she was something special," Judkins recalls of the occasion. "We had film on her, but it wasn't good film, so we went to see her play and she was one of the best players I'd seen for a long, long time."
Purcell remembers the occasion as well. Hailing from a large LDS Church community in Hamilton, New Zealand, she had long determined BYU was the school she wanted to attend and play for, along with it being the wishes of her parents.
"When I found out (Judkins) was there, I was like, 'This is my chance. I can't screw this up and I have to play as well as I possibly can,'" she recalled.
What Purcell showed in Texas was a unique talent that could benefit a basketball team in a variety of ways. She was offered a scholarship soon after, which she accepted immediately before rising to become just about everything Judkins envisioned and then some.
Purcell will finish her BYU career as one of those rare talents who really can do it all on the hardwood. She can bang inside with some of the best, given her stature, but can also lead a fast break, dish out assists and be a lockdown defender, given her superior athleticism.
In just two years she's pulled down 697 rebounds — good for ninth all-time at BYU — and currently ranks fourth nationally in defensive rebounds. She's also averaged 12 points per game, 4.8 assists and 2.2 steals.
But why just two years playing, after agreeing to sign with BYU while in high school?
Due to some difficulty transferring credits to BYU, Purcell had to go the junior college route, which was a bit devastating to her back in 2013.
"I didn't try as hard as I could in high school, but really worked hard to get my academics in order toward the end of my junior year and then throughout my senior year," Purcell said. "So I really did well my senior year, but it still wasn't enough. So yeah, that was really hard, after putting in so much work."
Purcell opted to enroll at Hutchinson Community College in Kansas. While there she improved her play to the point of being named NJCAA Player of the Year. Her play caught a lot of attention, and schools such as Oklahoma State and USC recruited her hard, among others.
"I really improved as a player while at (Hutchinson), but also as a student, which was a really big thing for me," Purcell said. "I considered other programs, took some visits, but those programs didn't feel like where I needed to be like BYU did. It was always such a great feeling whenever I visited BYU, talked to coaches and everyone else. BYU just provided that family atmosphere I couldn't find anywhere else."
Purcell saw immediate success her first year, fulfilling a big role alongside prolific scorer Lexi Rydalch and starting point guard Kylie Maeda. This season she's taken more of a leadership role, something she's taken to well.
"She's being more aggressive and she's been showing a lot of leadership," Judkins said. "Don't let her laid-back nature fool you — she has a lot of fire and really leads by example. She doesn't cut corners, and that's a great thing for my younger players to see."
Off the court, Purcell has also found a lot of success and is set to graduate later this year with a degree in sociology.1 comment on this story
"It's all been amazing and I've met some great people. I've had some really great relationships on the team and off of it," she said. "I love being around my team as much as I can. And then I've met my amazing boyfriend, Butch (Pau'u), and it's all been a really great experience for me."
As for her plans after BYU, Purcell has her eyes set on the WNBA, citing it as being her "ultimate goal." As for Judkins, he doesn't want to think quite yet of what it will be like without her in his lineup.
"I really have no idea how I'm going to replace her," Judkins said. "She does so much, and we rely on her so much to do really just about everything for us. But I'm thankful to have been able to coach her, and she's really done well here."