April 6, 2024 

Te-Hina Paopao is living every transfer’s dream

From the transfer portal to the NCAA Championship Game in one year

CLEVELAND — As of tip-off on Friday night at the Women’s Final Four, more than 1,040 players are in the transfer portal, seeking a new experience, more playing time, or, more precisely, what South Carolina’s Te-Hina Paopao has.

Continue reading with a subscription to The Next

Get unlimited access to women’s basketball coverage and help support our hardworking staff of writers, editors, and photographers by subscribing today.

Join today

Put yourself out there, show your value to a new coach and find yourself in a position to play for a national championship.

Paopao wasn’t going to get that opportunity at Oregon, where the Ducks have had trouble keeping their best players in Eugene over the past few years since their run at an NCAA Title was washed away along with the 2020 NCAA Tournament thanks to COVID. Paopao’s three seasons were productive, but not pointing her toward what she wanted.

Add Locked On Women’s Basketball to your daily routine

Here at The Next, in addition to the 24/7/365 written content our staff provides, we also host the daily Locked On Women’s Basketball podcast. Join us Monday through Saturday each week as we discuss all things WNBA, collegiate basketball, basketball history and much more. Listen wherever you find podcasts or watch on YouTube.

Starting fresh on the opposite coast has worked out pretty nicely for the Southern California native. The opportunity to learn from a legend. An unbeaten season. And now, a spot in the NCAA championship game.

“I’m kind of shocked, but not shocked,” Paopao said. “If you would have told me that we were going to be able to play in the national championship game in the summer, I wouldn’t have believed you. We’ve come a long way.”

Paopao walked onto the court at Rocket Mortgage Fieldhouse admitting to feeling the nerves.

“This is a first-time experience for me and it took a while for everything to soak in,” Paopao said.

In the first minute of the semifinal against North Carolina State, Paopao had the Gamecocks’ first basket, a steal and an assist. She would finish with 10 points (on 4-of-7 shooting) and six assists in 25 minutes as South Carolina dominated the second half.

On a rebuilt South Carolina team with a new starting five, Paopao settled in quickly. She became a source of stability, senior leadership and much-needed perimeter shooting. As the Gamecocks take their now 37–0 record into the national title game against Iowa, Paopao is more than along for the ride. She’s spent more than her share of time with her hands on the steering wheel in the backcourt.

Get 24/7 soccer coverage with The Equalizer

The Next is partnering with The Equalizer to bring more women’s sports stories to your inbox. Subscribers to The Next receive 50% off their subscription to The Equalizer for 24/7 coverage of women’s soccer.

Paopao’s experience as a transfer isn’t a given, it is not like you pour water on the name of your dream school and bam — instant championship contender. Even Dawn Staley admits she didn’t know Paopao well at all when she pulled her from the portal. That this turned out to be such a good fit for team and player is part the strong team culture Staley has instilled in Columbia, part Paopao’s willingness to adapt to a new situation, and part luck.

“Since day one the girls and the coaching staff have made me feel [at] home, and it’s just been so smooth,” Paopao said.

“I think she’s just very comfortable in her skin and giving us who she is,” Staley said of Paopao earlier in the Tournament. “I don’t know if that’s a growth thing for us, just over time she’s really just peeled down her layers and she’s given us all of her in a short period of time. That’s what I truly like.”

Paopao called Staley a “mastermind of the game” who has made her better over the course of the season.

“She’s just been helping me as a point guard, just making the right reads and giving me confidence on the court,” Paopao said. “Off the court she just teaches discipline, and she’s all about discipline and the standard, and that’s helped me grow as a woman, and I really appreciate her for that.”

Want even more women’s sports in your inbox?

Subscribe now to our sister publication The IX and receive our independent women’s sports newsletter six days a week. Learn more about your favorite athletes and teams around the world competing in soccer, tennis, basketball, golf, hockey and gymnastics from our incredible team of writers.

Readers of The Next now save 50% on their subscription to The IX.

Coming into the Final Four, Paopao averaged 10.9 points and 3.7 assists a game. She also ranks second in the nation in 3-point percentage at 46.3 percent (82 of 177) from beyond the arc.

On March 4, 2024 Paopao announced that she would be back next season to close out her career, presumably with another shot at a title. In the video where she made her announcement, her father Paul Paopao told Staley she had lived up to her promise to get Paopao’s game ready for the next level. And that the coach had revived his daughter’s love for the game of basketball.

“For sure, I lost a little bit of it, but it’s always going to be there,” Te-Hina Paopao said. “This season has meant so much to me and the team. It’s been very special.”

Paopao is positioning herself as a first-round pick in the 2025 WNBA Draft, something that will be aided greatly by another season under Staley and playing alongside MiLaysia Fulwiley and Raven Johnson. Her leadership will be critical in the absence of Kamilla Cardoso. It’s something that she might not have imagined a year ago when she put her name into the portal, hopeful that it would work out for the best.

“It doesn’t feel real,” Paopao said. “I’m so happy we made it. We’ve got one game left and we are really excited for that.”

Written by Michelle Smith

Michelle Smith has covered women's basketball nationally for nearly three decades. Smith has worked for ESPN.com, The Athletic, the San Francisco Chronicle, as well as Pac-12.com and WNBA.com. She was named to the Alameda County Women's Hall of Fame in 2015, is the 2017 recipient of the Jake Wade Media Award from the Collegiate Sports Information Directors Association (CoSIDA) and was named the Mel Greenberg Media Award winner by the WBCA in 2019.

Leave a Comment

You must be logged in to post a comment.