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Provo • Since arriving on campus last year, a newcomer named Kalani is really energizing BYU sports fans, pumping life into the program and inspiring talk of greater postseason success than in previous years.
New head football coach Kalani Sitake isn't doing too badly, either.
But the athlete with which he shares a first name women's basketball star Kalani Purcell has taken Provo by storm. The 6-foot-2 junior from New Zealand by way of Hutchinson Community College in Kansas is dominating the West Coast Conference. Purcell, high-scoring teammate Lexi Rydalch and some solid role players such as Makenzi Pulsipher, Kylie Maeda, Cassie Broadhead and Amanda Wayment have coach Jeff Judkins' Cougars (16-4, 8-1 WCC) tied at the top of league standings with San Diego and receiving votes in the major NCAA women's basketball polls.
"She's by far the most versatile player in the country," Judkins said of Purcell. "And it is not even close. She's the best rebounder I've ever coached, probably the best passer I've ever coached and one of the best defenders I've ever coached."
Named the WCC Player of the Week for the third straight week on Monday, Purcell's talents were on full display during Saturday's win over Pepperdine, when she nearly pulled off a Kyle Collinsworth-like triple-double. She had a career-high 24 rebounds, 16 points and eight assists. Against LMU on Thursday, Purcell scored a career-high 18 points and had 16 rebounds, four assists, two steals and a block.
"Her only weakness is she doesn't look to score enough," Judkins said. "She is just so unselfish, she doesn't shoot enough. But she is starting to realize what she needs to do in certain situations, and she has gotten better at that. I've kinda forced it, too, calling plays for her to score more. She's been a joy to coach."
Laid-back and self-deprecating off the court but fiery and competitive between the lines, Purcell has been as good as Judkins predicted she would be when he recruited her out of Hutchinson CC last winter. Actually, Purcell wanted to attend BYU after a stellar prep career in New Zealand, but there were problems with some of her high school coursework transferring over, and she had to take the junior college route.
So, after leading Hutchinson to two straight JUCO national championship game appearances, she's finally in Provo and quickly making up for lost time. She's the sixth-leading rebounder in the country at 12.7 per game, and leads the WCC in rebounding and assists (4.5 per game).
Rydalch is seventh in the nation in scoring at 23.4 ppg, and Pulsipher, the former Makenzi Morrison, chips in 11.7 ppg.
Division I college basketball "was hard to adjust to at first," Purcell said. "It is more physical, and in junior college you have one or two really good players on each team. Here, you have four or five standout players that you have to be aware of. There's no time for rest on the court."
Judkins said Purcell excels because she's a great athlete with a great body and great instincts for basketball.
"She is really quick, really strong, and really balanced," he said. "You don't see her fumbling around. I think that's why she's so good at rebounding. She doesn't ever get knocked off the block."
Born in Auckland to Brian and Ingrid Purcell, who are converts to the LDS Church and now live in Hamilton, Kalani Purcell is the youngest of seven siblings. Her brother, Nic Purcell, is a rugby star who was highly recruited by several Division I football teams, including BYU, despite not playing organized football until he was 24. When the NCAA ruled him ineligible to play at the D-I level, Purcell accepted a tryout with the Philadelphia Eagles, where Chip Kelly was the coach and familiar with Purcell from recruiting him while at Oregon.
Older sisters Charmian and Natalie represented New Zealand basketball on the international stage, which Kalani will almost certainly do this summer.
"We are a pretty athletic family," she said, noting her father is 6-2 and mother is 6-0 and played a lot of basketball growing up as well.
Meanwhile, Judkins said there are parts of Kalani's game that remind him of four-time NBA MVP LeBron James.
"The kind of athlete she is, the way she's built, the way she brings the ball up, the way she rebounds it," the coach said. "LeBron has become a lot better shooter, and that's what Kalani has to do now, become a better shooter."
About Kalani Purcell
• Named a first-team junior college All-American at Hutchinson Community College in Kansas in 2014-15 after leading team to two straight national championship game appearances.
• Grew up in New Zealand and led John Paul College High School to three straight national championships.
• The 6-foot-2 junior forward is averaging 11.4 points and 12.7 rebounds per game for the Cougars and recently won her third straight WCC Player of the Week award.