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From vulnerable to unstoppable: Why Te-Hina Paopao is South Carolina's missing piece

The Gamecocks are again undefeated heading into the Sweet 16, and hoping point guard Te-Hina Paopao has taken them from vulnerable to unstoppable.



From vulnerable to unstoppable: Why Te-Hina Paopao is South Carolina's missing piece
From vulnerable to unstoppable: Why Te-Hina Paopao is South Carolina's missing piece
Te-Hina Paopao has driven South Carolina women's basketball to an undefeated season and the brink of another Final Four, but the senior almost didn't end up in Columbia.

As she entered the transfer portal in the spring of 2023 and searched for a new home following her third season at Oregon, TCU seemed a logical choice for the 5-foot-9 point guard. She would have reunited with first-year Horned Frogs coach Mark Campbell, who had recruited her to Eugene during his stint as Oregon's associate head coach.

"I originally was gonna go to TCU," Paopao told ESPN.

One phone call from coach Dawn Staley, and an ensuing visit to Columbia, changed everything -- not just for Paopao but also for the Gamecocks.

Top-ranked and top-seeded South Carolina is 34-0, has a new look and is arguably better than ever. Through it all, Paopao has been a bastion of veteran leadership, elevating the Gamecocks' offense to another level and hitting clutch shots in big moments.

The transfer is a major reason South Carolina has emerged as one of the top 3-point-shooting teams in the country -- a far cry from the Gamecocks' 4-for-20 performance beyond the arc in the loss to Iowa in the 2023 national semifinals -- making her the missing piece that might take the Gamecocks from vulnerable to unstoppable.

As Staley's squad chases the program's third national championship -- a quest that resumes Friday (5 p.m. ET, ESPN) in the women's NCAA tournament when No. 1 seed South Carolina faces 4-seed Indiana in the Sweet 16 in Albany -- the best could be yet to come for Paopao. And after announcing earlier this month that she's returning next season for her final year of eligibility, she can help South Carolina remain the juggernaut that hasn't lost in nearly a year.

PAOPAO WAS A three-year starter and two-time all-Pac-12 first-team selection at Oregon when she decided it was time for a change, looking for a program that would challenge her, and one where she could win. She received a phone call from Staley. "We had a great conversation," Paopao said, "and then the rest is history."

Paopao was attracted to Staley's emphasis on discipline and how the coach requires her players to play at a high standard -- which Paopao believes separates South Carolina from other programs.

"Just being able to hear that voice and hear that, 'Hey, you need to be disciplined,' 'Hey, you need to do this and you need to do that in order for us to win,' then people are gonna listen, and she gets her players to listen," Paopao said. "I thought that was a neat thing to have."

But early summer workouts in Columbia weren't up to that level. Players weren't locked in, Paopao said.

"They really weren't in a good place," Staley told ESPN College GameDay in February. "We lacked leadership. We lacked a lot of things. We lacked conditioning. We lacked discipline. But once you start forming your habits, they picked up on them fairly quickly." Staley said she even pondered early retirement.

Once games started, the Gamecocks took off. South Carolina dropped a 100-71 beatdown on Notre Dame in Paris on opening day. A week later, the Gamecocks rose to No. 1 in The Associated Press rankings -- a spot they haven't relinquished.

Since then, the Gamecocks' chemistry has only gotten better, as has their commitment to the team's goal. With so many contributors, no one player is the star, but they've said that's just how they want it.

"To be honest, I didn't expect us to be this good," Paopao said, laughing. "That was one of the most shocking things is how good we are now. ... We just play free. We just play with no pressure, and we just love to play with each other."