One year after the phrase ‘Tough 4 T,’ was used to raise money and awareness in her fight against breast cancer, Tiana Mangakahia proved that no word was more fitting as she completed her courageous comeback season.

The fifth-year point guard from Brisbane, Australia, led all Division I players in assists average while helping guide the Syracuse University women’s basketball team to the NCAA Tournament second round for the sixth time in seven years before falling to top-seeded UConn last Tuesday night.

Mangakahia returned from sitting out the 2019-20 campaign while recovering from the disease to enter a season of unprecedented challenges for all college athletes playing through the COVID-19 pandemic. She shed light on her personal struggles during her final interview in an Orange uniform after SU’s season-ending loss.

“I’m proud of myself because it was really difficult to come back, and I just don’t feel like I was the same,” Mangakahia told the media through tears via zoom. “But I would just say I’m proud of myself.”

Throughout a grueling season, Mangakahia spoke of the frustration chasing the top physical form that made her the fastest player in program history to score 1,000 career points and the all-time career assists leader in just two seasons before being diagnosed with Stage 2 breast cancer in June 2019.

The 25-year-old often reminded herself of what she endured at various point prior to and during last season to keep her on-court challenges in perspective. Mangakahia underwent eight rounds of chemotherapy and two surgeries before being declared cancer-free in November 2019. She went more than 600 days between games.

“There are worse things people go through in their life, and me getting through it and coming out on top, it’s just a blessing to be able to play this sport,” Mangakahia said after SU’s loss to UConn.

“The other day I was telling the girls, we can complain about things all we want, but there are people out there who can’t play, there are people that can’t walk, don’t have arms, don’t have legs, so I think that’s what pushes me,” she added. “I had this opportunity, I came out on top, so I can’t complain about anything. I just have to go out there and if I’m struggling, I’m just going to push.”

Despite her strict self-assessment, Mangakahia led the nation with an average of 7.2 assists in 20 games. She scored 11.4 points to go with 3.4 rebounds per game and shot 84.2 percent on free throws while playing 32 minutes on average. She helped SU finish 15-9 overall and 9-7 in the Atlantic Coast Conference while extending the longest steak of tourney berths in team history.

Mangakahia finished her inspirational career with totals of 1,341 points to rank 11th all-time in the program. She tallied 736 career assists for the SU record, leading all active Division I players at the end of the year.

“I told her that 60 percent of her to me is better than 100 percent of anybody else in the country,” SU coach Quentin Hillsman said. “She’s a really, really tough kid, and that’s a kid I’ve got a lot of respect for coming out and playing the way she played. There were a lot of days she just didn’t feel good and she came out and she played. Toughest kid I’ve ever coached.”

Mangakahia has already officially declared for the WNBA Draft after stating intentions to go pro earlier this season. She hopes to continue her advocacy for breast cancer awareness throughout her professional career.

Moments after her final game, Mangakahia spoke of ambitions to start a foundation to help those with difficulties paying for treatments and wants to continue public speaking and attending fund-raiser events as she did so graciously around the SU community throughout her battle.

“No one will really understand, only the people who have been through it,” Mangakahia said. “My mom and my dad, they won’t even understand, and they were there with me the whole time, so really just to help people get through that and talk about my journey and what I learned about myself.”

As for the future of the Orange, Mangakahia believes she is leaving it in good hands as one of potentially several longtime standouts leaving the program.

Junior Emily Engstler was a surprise addition to the NCAA transfer portal late last week, while other veterans — redshirt senior Kiara Lewis, and seniors Digna Strautmane and Amaya Finklea-Guity — have yet to announce their respective decisions to move on or use an extra year of NCAA eligibility.

Hillsman is likely to lean on his emerging 6-foot-7 center and ACC Freshman of the Year, Kamilla Cardoso, along with fellow freshman, Priscilla Williams, to lead a younger SU squad moving forward. Each promising rookie was among the top 10 nationally in their recruiting class and will be joined by another strong influx this summer.

“(Cardoso) is an amazing post player, any point guard that gets to play with her should be over the moon, ecstatic, super happy, because she catches every pass and she pretty much finishes every layup,” Mangakahia said. “She’s an amazing player, Priscilla can knock down 3s, Syracuse moving forward, they’re going to be really good.”

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