Mangakahia battles back from breast cancer to play final Syracuse season

Mangakahia returns for final SU season after breast cancer battle

NCAA grants the Orange's all-time-assist leader an eligibility extension waiver.
Published: October 2, 2020
Women's basketball versus Drexel
Tiana Mangakahia, shown here driving to the basket against Drexel in 2017, will return to play with the Orange this season.

This time last year, Tiana Mangakahia watched her Syracuse women’s basketball team post a winning record from the sidelines. The Australian guard – a player with WNBA potential and the fastest player in program history to score 1,000 points – wasn’t afforded the opportunity to add more records to her resume, as her senior season was spent recovering from breast cancer.

Now, with Breast Cancer Awareness Month in full swing, Mangakahia received the news that her extension of eligibility waiver had been granted by the NCAA, allowing her to take the court for the first time since the end of the 2018-19 season.

It was during that last season, in April 2019, that Mangakahia opted to delay her professional basketball dreams and return to Syracuse for her final year of eligibility. Two months later, in June 2019, she shared that she was diagnosed with Stage 2 Grade 3 Invasive Ductal Carcinoma, a form of breast cancer.

Mangakahia underwent eight rounds of chemotherapy and two surgeries. She was eventually cleared for practice but playing any games that season was out of the question. After intensive treatments and a year-and-a-half off the court, Mangakahia is ready to play for the Orange once again.

“I’m super happy about this news and I just feel really excited for this season,” said Mangakahia. “I just feel very blessed to have this opportunity again to play with Syracuse University.”

Mangakahia said the conditioning has been the hardest to get back, putting herself at a seven or an eight on a scale to 10. She’s confident, through working out with the team and going through drills in practice, that she’ll move back to where she was prior to her diagnosis.

“I know I’ve put in work, after surgery, and I’m just ready to get on the court and play our first game. I kind of just want it to happen tomorrow.”

SU WBB vs NC State
Tiana Mangakahia is the fastest player in program history to score 1,000 points.

The one person more excited than Tiana to be back may be head coach Quentin Hillsman, who sees Mangakahia and Kiara Lewis as the best guard tandem in the country.

“It’s a great day for Tiana, first of all,” said Coach Q, as he’s informally known. “She’s really fought hard to have this opportunity, so I’m just super excited for her to be able to finish her career, and I think it’s going to be one of those deals where you’re going to see a player come back really strong.

“Just having the ball back in her hands and having her run the offense, we feel really confident in our guard position. It’s just been a natural progression for Tiana, getting herself back into shape, and I believe that she’s just about there and it’s been great for Kiki [Kiara Lewis] as well.”

There’s no question Mangakahia will be a vital addition to the Orange on the court. Mangakahia will have the chance to build on her junior campaign, which saw her named AP All-America Honorable Mention, WBCA All-America Honorable Mention, Nancy Lieberman Point Guard Award Top-5 Finalist, and the Syracuse Female Athlete of the Year. In 2018-19, she led the Orange in points (573), points per game (16.9), assists (287), assists per game (8.4) and free throw percentage (88.2%).

But, for Coach Hillsman, Mangakahia’s impact extends far beyond the court.

“From a leadership standpoint, it’s everything,” said Hillsman about Tiana’s importance to the team. “Surely the toughness from being diagnosed to now is just a tremendous feat in itself. I think that toughness should translate into everything that we do on and off the court.”

The start of the basketball season has yet to be announced due to the pandemic. But Mangakahia knows, whenever that first game rolls around, she’s ready to come back the same player she was in 2019.

Mangakahia said, “Just thinking about everything that I had to go through to be back on the court and healthy again, knowing I did all of that so I could be on the court, I got through all of that and now it’s time to step up and do what I came to Syracuse for.”