Tiana Mangakahia sank her first 3-point field goal attempt in Sunday’s season-opening victory and instantly recaptured the feeling she had been waiting more than 600 days to experience.
The fifth-year graduate point guard for the 22nd-ranked Syracuse University women’s basketball team shined in her long-awaited return to the court after overcoming breast cancer to help SU beat Stony Brook, 50-39, to tip off the season Sunday in a nonconference road game.
Mangakahia — cancer-free for more than a year — led all scorers with 16 points, 7 rebounds, 4 steals, 3 assists, and a blocked shot in her first game for the Orange since a second-round loss in the 2019 NCAA Tournament. She will look to continue thriving in her comeback while leading SU into its home opener against Division II Lincoln (Penn.) at 6 p.m. tonight in the Carrier Dome.
During a zoom conference Tuesday, Mangakahia said that she felt “super hyped,” after making her first shot from deep but believes her best basketball is yet to come after working through the nerves of her initial return to the court.
“I felt very slow, it was like my mind wanted me to do what I used to do and my body wouldn’t let me, so it was hard to adjust, but I still feel like I can get to where I was, but it’s just going to take awhile,” said Mangakahia, the 5-foot-6 native of Brisbane, Australia.
“My competitiveness and being aggressive, and that leadership, I feel like those are things that aren’t physical but I know that I still cared so much about the game and still wanted to do really well and just compete,” she later added. “I think those are the things that felt natural to me when I was out there.”
Mangakahia’s return has garnered national attention and the star point guard admitted she has been inundated with well wishes sent her way over the last few days.
“It’s been so overwhelming with the amount of support and messages that I’ve been getting, and I just feel completely grateful and blessed to be able to play the sport, especially not knowing if I would ever be able to play again,” Mangakahia said. “It’s just made me appreciate the sport and the game a lot more.”
Mangakahia was diagnosed with Stage 2 breast cancer in June 2019 and endured eight rounds of chemotherapy and two surgeries before being declared cancer-free last November.
She sat out last season to recover and was granted an extension of eligibility waiver by the NCAA this past October to make her anticipated comeback plans official.
Mangakahia entered the season with a program-record 591 assists and was the fastest in team history to surpass 1,000 career points, recording 1,114 in her first two seasons combined at SU.
She was considered a high-end WNBA prospect before announcing plans to return for an expected final season with the Orange in April 2019 prior to her diagnosis.
“It’s good to see her back healthy and smiling and thriving, all those kinds of things,” said SU junior forward, Emily Engstler, prior to the season opener. “We look forward to playing with her and hope that, not only can she bring us to a Final Four, but this season does everything that it needs to get her to the league. She was put in this position that she couldn’t control that set her back in the form of taking away a year of basketball, but I think this is going to be a huge season for her.”
There was no easing back in for Mangakahia, who logged 36 minutes in the season opener. She entered without a set expectation for playing time, just knowing she would be relied on as the main point guard.
“After the game, I was tired, and the next day, I was tired,” Mangakahia said with a laugh. “I’m sore, but I just know that I got to do the right things to stretch and make sure I get treatment, ice, and do all that stuff so this game (tonight), I’ll feel fresh.”
Syracuse head coach Quentin Hillsman, beginning his 15th season at the helm, shared an emotional hug with his returning point guard prior to tip-off of the opener and said Tuesday that she showed no signs of fatigue during the game and appears to be in great shape.
“She seemed very, very confident on the floor, and I’m just really happy and blessed to have her here,” Hillsman said. “She’s healthy, and for her to play basketball again, that’s important.”
Mangakahia was one of 30 players named to the John R. Wooden Award watch list Tuesday, along with teammate Kiara Lewis, which is presented annually to the most outstanding player in NCAA women’s basketball.
Mangakahia had previously been named to watch lists for the Naismith Trophy, also presented to the National Player of the Year, and the Nancy Lieberman Award to honor the nation’s top point guard.
“That’s really cool,” Mangakahia said of the recognition. “I feel honored and I just want to play my hardest and just give it my best, take every opportunity and never take anything for granted because you never know when it’s your last time.”