Video: Te-Hina Paopao highlights
See the Oregon-bound guard lead La Jolla Country Day to a national title.
The coronavirus pandemic is cutting high school sports seasons and
careers short. In the coming days and weeks, MaxPreps is putting the
spotlight on some of those stories via our 'Extending the Season'
At age 11, Te-Hina Paopao
was the starting point guard on Terri Bamford's U16 AAU team. By 14, current WNBA player and NCAA career scoring leader Kelsey Plum told ESPN, Paopao could have started on a Pac-12 team.
But two severe knee injuries curtailed Paopao's high school career significantly. She played four games as a freshman, none as a sophomore and 26 at "about 75 percent," her junior year, said Bamford, also her coach at La Jolla Country Day (La Jolla, Calif.)
That set the stage for her senior season, one clear of injury, limp or limitations.
"Magical," said Bamford.
"Unforgettable," Paopao said.
Like Paopao herself — the La Jolla Country Day season was free and limitless.
The 5-foot-10 point guard — with a magnetic Magic Johnson-like personality and game to match — averaged 22.7 points, 8.0 rebounds, 4.3 assists and 3.3 steals per game, leading the Torreys to a 32-1 record, a ninth Southern California regional crown and first MaxPreps national championship.
With the addition of an impact freshman post in 6-foot-3
(17.3 points, 11.9 rebounds and 3.3 blocks per game), unselfish role players abound and Paopao orchestrating it all, everything clicked.
Bamford called it the most "enjoyable" of her 22 years coaching, and she coached Plum and fellow WNBA standout Candice Wiggins.
"Everyone embraced their role," Bamford said. "Everyone was just super excited to be on the team and nobody cared who scored. Everyone cheered for each other. It was truly special."
But clearly, Paopao tied it all together. The first team MaxPreps All-American and Oregon signee said she considered stepping away from the game after watching from the bench most of her first two seasons. She doubted herself. Could she ever come back 100 percent?
She said she leaned on her faith, "an amazing support system," and ultimately her teammates to put together her unforgettable senior year.
"Being back 100 percent was such a great blessing," she said. "Playing a whole season with my team, and being able to accomplish what we did, it was such an awesome experience to be a part of.
"We had such a unique chemistry. We knew all our strengths and weaknesses. I love these girls. It's the best team I've ever played on. I couldn't have wished for a greater season."
But Paopao caught herself at the end of that statement.
"Well, I think we all had one more wish," she said.
That, of course, was to finish the season.
Like many state tournaments throughout the country, the coronavirus pandemic put an end to California Interscholastic Federation state championships two days before games were to be played at Sacramento's Golden 1 Center.
La Jolla Country Day's Open Division opponent was Northern California champion Archbishop Mitty (San Jose), a team it already had beat 62-54 in the Nike Tournament of Champions semifinals. Mitty (26-3) had won 19 straight and was No. 2 in the MaxPreps national computer rankings. The Torreys were after their fifth state crown.
"It was a real bummer not being able to play," Paopao said. "The day we found out we all got real quiet. We all wanted to play on the big court in one of the biggest games in the nation. But it was out of our hands."
It's a topic Paopao with which she was familiar. She had already experienced, quite profoundly from her injuries, the feeling of incompleteness her teammates now felt.
It wasn't difficult for her to see the bigger picture. Then again, as a first-rate point guard, she has always has had great vision.
"We can just control the controllables," she said. "We couldn't control the coronavirus.
"Life is way bigger than sports. I pray for those who have come down for the virus and those who don't have it, I pray they never do."
The second-youngest of six children, Paopao has always been mature and something of an old soul.
As a 10-year-old, she scrimmaged against Plum, who told ESPN in 2017 of her greatness.
"She's just never scared," Plum said of Paopao. "It's like a fearlessness but a confidence that she has. I think she could start in the Pac-12 right now. … Honestly, I think she could be the best to come out of San Diego."
Considering Plum herself, Wiggins and Charde Houston, another WNBA standout, are all from the same region, that's quite a statement.
Bamford didn't care to compare Paopao with Wiggins or Plum, but did say "Te-Hina has the complete package. She has a pro skill-set, high basketball IQ, tremendous leadership skills, high motor and an amazing attitude. She loves to be coached and her teammates love her and want to play hard for her.
"They don't get any better than Te-Hina. I think she is the best player in the country."
At Oregon, she might just replace the best college player in the country in senior Sabrina Ionescu and two-time college national Player of the Year award winner.
With largely the same skill set and leadership qualities, Paopao already has heard the comparisons.
Like La Jolla Country Day, Oregon didn't get a chance to play for the top prize because the season was canceled after winning the Pac-12 title. Like the Torreys, the Ducks were ranked No. 1 in the country.
Paopao met Ionescu only on her recruiting trip and deflects any comparisons.
"She's a great player and a great person," Paopao said of Ionescu. "I'm just going up to Oregon and doing whatever coach (Kelly) Graves wants me to do. I just want to win a natty (national championships). I'll do whatever I can do to win at least one of those."