‘There are two BYUs?’: Kaylee Smiler went from not knowing about Provo’s BYU to getting a master’s degree there

BYU guard Kaylee Smiler (11) chases a loose ball during game at the Huntsman Center in Salt Lake City on Saturday, Dec. 2, 2023.
BYU guard Kaylee Smiler (11) chases a loose ball during game at the Huntsman Center in Salt Lake City on Saturday, Dec. 2, 2023. | Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

Growing up in Hamilton, New Zealand, and playing four different sports, all while becoming an accomplished dancer, Kaylee Smiler had her future all figured out.

The 5-foot-8 guard of Maori descent would study and participate in dance at BYU-Hawaii, where her parents — Loanna and Phillip — met and where her sister, Kendall, was playing basketball for the Seasiders at the time.

“I was going to be a dancer, and play basketball on the side, go to the beach a lot and go from there,” Smiler said last week after getting her master’s degree in biology at the “other” BYU, the one in Provo.

But in March 2014, the school in Laie, Hawaii, announced that it was phasing out its athletic programs, including women’s basketball, over the course of the next three years.

“I didn’t know what to do, I was stunned,” Smiler said. “Then people told me to just apply to BYU-Provo, and try to make the basketball team there. I was like, ‘There’s a second one? There are two BYUs?’ I didn’t know there was more than one.”

Smiler was student body president at Hamilton’s Melville High in 2017, in addition to being a four-year letter winner in basketball and her team’s MVP in 2015, 2016 and 2017, which was the final year BYU-H had athletics.

She quickly did some research on Provo’s BYU, discovered there was “a Kiwi girl already on the team” by the name of Kalani Purcell, and that her parents knew Purcell’s parents. The Purcells sent Smiler’s two-minute highlight tape to BYU and it landed in the hands of then-assistant coach Ray Stewart, who passed it along to head coach Jeff Judkins.

Two weeks later, Smiler was invited on an official campus visit, and offered a scholarship. She committed almost on the spot, and has been a vital part of the program the last six years.

“In the span of one month, I went from not knowing (BYU-Provo even existed) to being on the basketball team,” she said. “It was really quite quick.”

Her stay at BYU was just the opposite. Because she redshirted a year (2018-19) and the 2020-21 season didn’t count against her eligibility, Smiler was there for six years, enabling her to get her bachelor’s degree in business-human resources in 2022 and her master’s degree this spring.

Another New Zealander on second-year coach Amber Whiting’s 2023-24 squad, redshirt-junior Arielle Mackey-Williams, also graduated last week, in communications, despite missing the entire season with a knee injury.

Smiler and Mackey-Williams are among 87 BYU student-athletes who earned degrees this academic year.

“After the BYU-H plan (fell through), I always thought I would come to BYU and play four years,” Smiler said. “I didn’t plan on getting my masters. But because of COVID, which everyone has always seen as a negative thing that happened in the world, it actually allowed me to have an extra year of eligibility that got me my master’s degree.”

Down the road on her bucket list is a doctorate degree from BYU, but first things first — there’s more basketball to play, this time for a paycheck. More on that in a bit.

How the pandemic paid off in other ways

Smiler can also say that the pandemic and BYU-H dropping sports also helped her meet her future husband, Kiwa Mo’o, whom she will marry May 25 in New Zealand.

Kaylee Smiler dribbles the ball with a smile as time runs out and the BYU women's basketball team wins their fifth game in a row against Santa Clara, 71-48. | Alyssa Lyman, BYU
Kaylee Smiler dribbles the ball with a smile as time runs out and the BYU women's basketball team wins their fifth game in a row against Santa Clara, 71-48. | Alyssa Lyman, BYU

Her native country closed its borders in the spring of 2020 just after the NCAA tournaments were canceled, so Smiler flew to Hawaii, where she also has family.

Because her undergraduate degree was in business, she got an internship working in the human resource office at the Polynesian Cultural Center in the mornings, then got a job as a dancer in the Maori village of the Polynesian Cultural Center at night. Mo’o, a BYU-H student who had played football for Snow College, was also a PCC dancer.

“And that’s how we met,” Smiler said.

Smiler was a reserve who played sparingly her first four seasons at BYU. She redshirted in 2018-19 after her thigh was severely lacerated by a boat propeller in an accident at Deer Creek Reservoir up Provo Canyon.

After she averaged just 2.5 points and 1.1 rebounds per game in 2021-22 and coach Judkins was forced out, she didn’t think new coach Whiting would keep her around. Instead, Whiting was impressed by her defensive ability and selflessness and not only kept her on the team, made her a starter.

Smiler averaged 7.3 points per game in 2022-23 and 7.2 this past season, all while getting her master’s degree.

Can she beat her 6-foot-1 fiance in a friendly game of one-on-one?

“He played football and dances, so he’s pretty athletic and thinks he can hang with me, but I win every time,” she said.

Her favorite on-court memories

Smiler’s family wasn’t able to make it to her most recent graduation, but that doesn’t mean she went a long time without seeing them — twice.

They came to Utah at Christmastime for a family reunion of sorts, and watched her score a career-high 17 points in a 79-76 overtime win over Idaho State on Dec. 16.

Amazingly, she took an elbow to her head in the second quarter that caused a gash and required eight staples to close the wound.

“My family was there watching, so I did not want to sit the rest of the game,” she said. “They stapled me up, and I immediately went straight back out on the court and finished the game.” That was a humble way to put it; Smiler made the game-sealing free throws with 6.1 seconds left in overtime as BYU overcame a 13-point fourth-quarter deficit.

Her parents were able to return for Senior Day on Feb. 29, as BYU surprised Smiler by flying them over from New Zealand. After BYU’s 64-54 win over Houston, it got better as her family performed a ceremonial Haka dance in her honor.

Video of the ceremony, with Smiler decked in leis, went viral. She said she will be eternally grateful for the gesture.

“BYU has created and given me so many opportunities that I couldn’t have gotten back home,” she said. “And that’s why I understand when people leave New Zealand and come play Division I basketball here. It is not only the basketball and the education. It is also about the relationships. … You meet so many people within the athletic administration. You meet donors, you meet really smart doctors and professors, and they just line you up for things. So it doesn’t matter what your dreams are, if you go to BYU you will be sorted for the rest of your life.”

What’s next on Smiler’s path?

As mentioned before, Smiler’s basketball-playing days, and her academic pursuits, are far from over. Three days after her wedding in late May, she will fly to Perth, Australia, and play for a professional team for three months.

After that it is back to New Zealand to try out for the national team, the Tall Ferns, that will play in the world qualifiers in August. Then she will join another professional team in New Zealand about an hour away from her hometown to complete a hectic 2024 schedule.

“So that will be cool,” she said.

Then it will be time to hang up the sneakers and get back in the classroom. She will start working on a Ph.D. in biology from BYU and will get to stay in New Zealand at the University of Waikato the first eight months for that before returning to Provo to finish it up.

“Playing pro ball to me was more of a bucket list thing, not a longterm thing, which is why I have only signed contract deals just for this year,” she said. “Hopefully I can tick off playing internationally, which is in Australia, just over the ditch from New Zealand, and then tick off playing at home, and then tick off playing on my national team.

“And after that, it will be like, ‘Oh yeah, I am good, I don’t need to do that anymore.’”

Down the road, she would like to have children and start a family, while keeping her passion for what was her master’s thesis: “Lighting a path to increased leadership among indigenous people” in New Zealand.

“I don’t know where that is going to lead me, but if I can keep learning about that, I think I will have a pretty fun life,” she said.

Not that it hasn’t been adventurous and rewarding already.

BYU’s Kaylee Smiler drives during WCC tournament semifinal game against Gonzaga on Monday, March 6, 2023, in Las Vegas
BYU’s Kaylee Smiler drives during WCC tournament semifinal game against Gonzaga on Monday, March 6, 2023, in Las Vegas. | Nate Edwards, BYU Photo