What went into Te-Hina Paopao’s decision to return to South Carolina women’s basketball?

Te-Hina Paopao originally wasn’t going to make a decision on whether to stay at South Carolina or declare for the WNBA Draft until after the Gamecocks’ season.

She and fellow seniors Kamilla Cardoso and Sakima Walker are part of the final class that’s able to use the NCAA’s COVID-19 waiver to return for an extra year of collegiate competition.

Inside Te-Hina Paopao's decision to return to South Carolina | The State

Since transferring to South Carolina over last offseason, Paopao has become one nation’s most accurate 3-point shooter and an integral part of the Gamecocks’ undefeated regular season. She lead Division I in three-point percentage at 48.5 percent.

But as the season progressed, Paopao and her family began reflecting on her college basketball career as a whole.

They ultimately decided returning to South Carolina for a fifth and final season would be in her best interest.

Coach Dawn Staley said Wednesday she learned of Paopao’s decision about a month ago.

She made her announcement via social media Monday so she and the rest of the Gamecocks could focus on their upcoming postseason journey.

“We just kind of looked at it like, ‘What could another year be with with all the stuff behind us?’ “ her dad Paul Paopao told The State.

“The transition, the portal, the first year. So in that aspect of things, it just looked like a lot of wisdom at this point to wait and go for another year. It couldn’t be a bad thing.”

What Te-Hina Paopao returning means for South Carolina - The Next

Te-Hina began her career at Oregon in 2020 as one of five five-star prospects in the Ducks’ No. 1 recruiting class.

She spent three years there, though the experience wasn’t exactly what she and her family had hoped for as far as player development. Paul said some years felt like backward progress.

So she entered the transfer portal.

Te-Hina came to South Carolina last summer in need of a new challenge.

She was excited to learn under Staley, a point guard’s coach with a proven track record of preparing players for the WNBA.

Twenty-nine games and 29 victories later, it’s clear Te-Hina and the Gamecocks are a fit.

“Three years in Oregon was a long time, and the last eight months made up for a lot that was lost there,” Paul said.

Te-Hina lost about 15 pounds training with USC strength and conditioning coach Molly Binetti and has earned a host of accolades: watch list for the Wooden Award (for the best player in college basketball), watch list for Naismith Award (also for the best player in college basketball) and the watch list for the Nancy Lieberman Award (for the best point guard in college basketball) along with a spot on the All-SEC Second Team.

“It’s a big deal for our program for Pao and her family to feel like they want to extend her college career and prepare a little bit better for the WNBA,” Staley said.

“I think our coaching staff, her teammates, this community all made her feel very comfortable in deciding that she wants to do it again.”

Staley told local media ahead of last Sunday’s game that she’d heard WNBA Draft first-round buzz about Te-Hina from league personnel.

But she and her family felt it was more advantageous to take another year in school to improve her draft stock.

“There’s so much talent. They’re so much further physically,” Paul said.

“What would a year to wait to get physically built up, mentally, cerebrally, IQ-wise do? It was a win to be able to wait and stay.”

Plus, Paul added, Te-Hina loves it at South Carolina. Her teammates have become sisters. Her coaches have become family.

“I just felt love from Day 1,” Te-Hina said Wednesday. “The genuine love and support from everyone. The girls, the coaches, and it’s just been a fun ride, and I’m excited to continue that.”

The Paopaos have offered several grand gestures to show the Gamecocks their gratitude for taking Te-Hina in and making her one of their own.

When the team came back from summer break, she gave everyone garnet and black kukui nut necklaces. In Samoan culture they’re often given out at graduations, weddings and other special celebrations to represent respect, unity and family.

Over winter break, she brought them Hawaiian macadamia chocolates. And for Senior Day, the Paopoaos hand-made flower leis for Te-Hina and the entire coaching staff to wear.

They brought them in coolers all the way from their home in California for preservation. The garlands are meant as festive displays of respect and gratitude.

“It’s all things to unite and give to the heart to let them know, ‘We really appreciate, we’re really into this,’ ” Paul said. “ ’We’re really here. We’re really going forward with you guys.’ Just little gestures that can really exhibit the heart of where we’re coming from.”

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