Paopao adds maturity and sharpshooting to South Carolina's perfect season

COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) — South Carolina was a team high on talent but low on experience last summer. Te-Hina Paopao brought both to the Gamecocks for a season that's just four victories away from perfection.

The Oregon transfer has started 33 of 34 games and has been a steadying hand after seven seniors, the core of the team that made the past three Final Fours and won the 2022 national title, left last season.

“Pao,” South Carolina coach Dawn Staley said, using the player's nickname, “gives us something we didn't have.”

Paopao and the Gamecocks (34-0) advanced to the Sweet 16 for a 10th straight tournament and will play No. 4 seed Indiana (26-5) in Albany, New York, on Friday to move a step closer to a title. They are seeking to become the 10th team ever in Division I women’s basketball to have a perfect championship season.

Paopao hopes to deliver, as she has all season.

She leads the country in 3-point shooting, making 47.1% of her long-distance shots. Paopao also has been a guiding hand with a light touch to teammates whose experience had mostly come in garbage time, or giving All-Americans like Aliyah Boston and Zia Cooke a breather the past few seasons.

When Raven Johnson went on about Paopao's stellar offense and knowledge of the game, a smiling Paopao countered: “Defensively nothing? Just offense?”

Paopao has savored every moment this season after crossing the continent to continue her basketball journey.

She was a five-star prospect in high school from Oceanside, California, who overcame two knee ligament tears to become a McDonald's All-American.

Paopao was a two-time All-Pac 12 first-team selection with the Ducks, who reached the Sweet 16 in her freshman season. But Paopao felt at a crossroad after her junior season and she and her family decided a change might do her good.

“For sure, I lost a little bit of it," she said of her love of basketball.

That changed with the Gamecocks. Paopao is third on the team at 11.2 points a game and second to Johnson in assists.

Kamilla Cardoso, the 6-foot-7 All-Southeastern Conference forward who is the Gamecocks' top scorer, said Paopao was an instant leader when she arrived with the program.

“We've got a lot of young players and she helps just by using her voice,” Cardoso said. “That's been an amazing experience.”

Staley didn't know Paopao before she arrived but has come to admire her willingness to give all she has to make South Carolina a success.

“She's just very comfortable in her skin and giving us who she is,” Staley said. “I don't know if that's a growth thing for us. Over time, she's really just peeled down her layers and she's given us all of her in a short period of time.”

Paopao always seems to give the Gamecocks what they need. She had a season-high 21 points to rout then-11th-ranked UConn 83-65 last month while Cardoso was competing in Olympic qualifying with the Brazilian national team.

Win or lose, that time is not over. The day after Paopao was celebrated at Senior Day on March 3, she announced she was putting off the pros and returning to South Carolina.

The call from her and her father, Paul, posted on social media had Dad thanking Staley and saying his daughter had rediscovered what the game meant to her.

In your program, she found a place she could flourish, be happy and revive her love for the game of basketball,” Paul Paopao told Staley.

Paopao gave voice to that familial bond at the bittersweet championship SEC Tournament ceremony, where four of her teammates in Cardoso, Chloe Kitts, Tessa Johnson and Sakima Walker — all ejected for their role in a late skirmish — could not celebrate their shared success.

“It was heartbreaking,” Paopao said after South Carolina’s 79-72 victory over LSU in the title game March 10. “We couldn’t have done it without them. We’re a team for a reason. We’re a family.”

Paopao's experience with her new family continues at the Albany 1 Regional this week.

“This season has meant so much to me and the team. It’s been very special,” she said. “We were very proud of our journey so far, but the job’s not done. We’ve still got business to handle.”


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