Syracuse women’s basketball finally has a schedule for this year. And even though it’s an abbreviated slate due to the pandemic, one player will be extremely glad to be back on the court.
As an All-ACC First Team point guard, Tiana
is used to being in control. But one day, at age 24, everything changed when she was diagnosed with Stage 2 breast cancer.
Mangakahia’s goal of beating ACC competition in her senior season that would skyrocket her into the first round of the WNBA Draft was taken away, replaced by the toughest challenge of her life. The Nancy Lieberman Award finalist for point guard of the year had a long road ahead of her.
“The biggest challenge for me was probably losing my hair,” Mangakahia said. “It’s really different. I didn’t realize how much my hair meant to me.”
Five long months later, after her final chemotherapy treatment and a double mastectomy, Mangakahia was finally cancer free. The news came just in time for the season when she continued to rehab while taking on a coaching role from the bench.
“I would say I learned a lot, mainly as a team, on the bench, next to my teammates. Everybody being engaged and involved. I think winning teams have that. It doesn’t matter how many minutes you play. It doesn’t matter if you’re not playing at all. You still have to want the best for everybody.”
Head Coach Quinton Hillsman says that, while it was Mangakahia’s fight, he actually relied on her.
“She wouldn’t allow us to feel sorry for her, and she wouldn’t allow us to be down,” Hillsman said. “Tiana really got me through it. She always had a great attitude.”
But this year, the Aussie will be doing much more than coaching. Thanks to an NCAA eligibility waiver, the fifth-year senior will be out there, ready to achieve the goals she was forced to put aside.
“WNBA is definitely still what I want to do. I do want to be a top-10 pick, for sure.”
So now Mangakahia faces another unprecedented challenge, which is returning to the player she was.
RETURNING TO THE COURT MEANS RETURNING TO SOMETHING FAMILIAR
Last month, Mangakahia said the upcoming basketball season snuck up.
“Coach Q mentioned a couple of days ago that we only have like 40-something practices left before our first game, and my stomach kind of dropped. I was so nervous.”
And even with the extra jitters, Hillsman’s confidence in Mangakahia has only grown.
“Any worries that I had she instantly made them disappear. She’s competitive, and she’s playing hard. She’s still hard on herself on the court. I’m still tough on her. Nothing has changed.”
Even if she is the same player, it won't be the same team. Guard Kiara Lewis flourished in Mangakahia's absence, winning All-ACC First Team honors.
“That’s the best guard tandem in the country. It’s not just coach talk either. I really believe that. I’m very confident in their play,” said Hillsman.
Mangakahia is looking forward to sharing the lead role.
“We both know we are going to be good together.”
Believe it or not, the advantage of adding the program’s all-time leading passer in Mangakahia to a team with a top-5 ACC scorer in Lewis is bigger than the X’s and O’s.
Our backcourt >>>> pic.twitter.com/KZX0CzFlxc
— 'Cuse Hoops (@CuseWBB) November 10, 2020
“The toughness from being diagnosed until now is just a tremendous feat in itself,” Hillsman said. “I think that toughness should translate to everything we do on and off the court.”
The cancer is gone. The first challenge overcome. But Mangakahia and the team are different for it. Maybe that’s a good thing. Toughness might even be a bigger part of SU’s identity than the color Orange.
SYRACUSE HAS HIGH EXPECTATIONS FOR UPCOMING SEASON
That toughness will be paramount for Syracuse, ranked 23rd nationally pre-season, given their all-ACC schedule, which is abbreviated to 20 games due to COVID-19.
On top of adding Mangakahia, Hillsman is bringing in the fourth-best recruiting class in the nation, with seven commits. Among them are five-star center Kamilla Cordoso and shooting guard Priscilla Williams.
SYRACUSE WOMEN'S BASKETBALL SEASON SET
(from SU Dept of Athletics)
- North Carolina (12/31)
- Virginia (1/7)
- Notre Dame (1/10)
- Miami (1/17)
- Pittsburgh (1/28)
- Wake Forest (2/4)
- Louisville (2/14)
- Boston College (2/25)
- NC State (2/28)
- Miami (12/10)
- North Carolina (12/17)
- Boston College (12/20)
- Georgia Tech (1/14)
- Duke (1/21)
- Clemson (1/24)
- Louisville (2/1)
- Pittsburgh (2/7)
- Florida State (2/11)
- Notre Dame (2/18)
- Virginia Tech (2/21)
Ever since the 2016 Final-Four run, Syracuse has struggled to return to the national spotlight, but all eyes are on the reloaded Orange in 2020.
Mangakahia and her teammates open their season on December 10th when they visit Miami. The home opener is on December 31st. As of now, no fans are allowed in the Dome for any sporting events.
Thanks to NCAA.com, WJPZ, and ACC Network, which contributed to this story.