Tiana Mangakahia returns to Syracuse and creates an early connection with Kamilla Cardoso
In her first game in 615 days, Mangakahia led the Orange in minutes played and scoring
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To the casual fan of college basketball, there was — on the surface — nothing particularly noteworthy about No. 22 Syracuse’s season-opening win over the Stony Brook Seawolves.
The Orange shot an abysmal 11.1% from three-point range and a disappointing 29.4% from the floor. Syracuse turned the ball over 21 times and got out-rebounded by three. And still, the Orange prevailed.
A closer look reveals something more important than the winner and loser. Sunday’s game marked the return of Syracuse’s stellar point guard, Tiana Mangakahia. The fifth-year Australian led the Orange in playing time and scoring, tallying 16 points, seven rebounds, four steals, and three assists across 37 minutes of action.
It was the first game Mangakahia had played in since March 25, 2019, when the Orange lost in the second round of the NCAA tournament to South Dakota State. 615 days had passed since Mangakahia had played in a college basketball contest, and in that span of time, she was diagnosed Stage 2 Grade 3 Invasive Ductal Carcinoma — a form of breast cancer — and underwent a successful double mastectomy.
“It’s been so overwhelming, a little bit, with the amount of support and messages I’ve been getting. And I just feel completely grateful and blessed to be able to play the sport,” Mangakahia said during a Zoom call Tuesday. “Especially not knowing if I would ever be able to play again. So, it's just made me appreciate the sport and the game a lot more.”
After Stony Brook’s Anastasia Warren missed a three-pointer in the early moments of the game, Mangakahia grabbed the rebound, then dished an assist to Amaya Finklea-Guity on the other end. Her first points came a few minutes later when she swiped the ball from Stony Brook’s Asiah Dingle and scored on a fast break lay-up in traffic with ease.
Just before the end of the opening period, Mangakahia sunk her first three-pointer of the season, a swish from the left-wing. She held her right hand in the air as the ball sank harmlessly through the net, briefly basking at the moment.
“She was good. She definitely pushed the ball in transition. She was very, very good at getting off the ball earlier in possessions. That’s something she hadn’t done in the past,” Syracuse head coach Quentin Hillsman said of Mangakahia. “I think that’s something that will make her a much better player — getting off the ball, kind of getting the hockey assist if you will.
“She seemed to be in pretty good shape, obviously. She didn’t seem tired at all. She seemed very, very confident on the floor.”
It wasn’t the best game for Syracuse and Mangakahia. If they played that way against a fellow AP Top 25 team, they might’ve lost. She knows they have to get better and chalked their inconsistent play against the Seawolves up to a lack of chemistry.
“I feel like we're just getting used to playing with each other. A lot of us were nervous for the first game. People were in foul trouble. I still feel like we have so much more to prove and to show everybody,” Mangakahia said. “This first game was a little rusty for a lot of us.”
Personally, Mangakahia still feels like she’s working her way back to where her skill level was two years ago. She admitted Tuesday that she’s not quite there yet and felt “very slow” on Sunday. Still, she believes she can return to her elite form. And her qualities that aren’t physical — her aggressiveness, her competitiveness, and her ability to lead — have stayed with her through everything.
“I think those three things are what felt natural to me when I was out there,” she said.
What did shine through in this game for Syracuse was the talent of Kamilla Cardoso, the highest-ranked recruit in program history. The 6-foot-7 center from Brazil finished her collegiate debut with 14 points, seven rebounds, and two blocks in just 13 minutes of play.
When Cardoso was on the floor, Mangakahia looked for her. Early in the third quarter, the veteran point guard fired a two-handed chest pass from beyond the arc to Cardoso, who was posted up in the paint. The Brazilian made quick work of the smaller defender guarding her, taking a dribble before connecting on a lay-up.
Mangakahia found Cardoso again in the fourth quarter, this time on an inbounds pass. Mangakahia lofted the ball up from behind the baseline and a charging Cardoso caught it, then put a deft touch on a shot over two defenders.
“She has a great vision on the floor. She sees everybody,” Cardoso said of Mangakahia. “I think me and Tiana can do great things together going forward in the season because she’s a great point guard. I think we have a great chemistry.”
The admiration between Cardoso and Mangakahia is mutual. The two hung out a lot in the summer, Mangakahia says, and Cardoso was sort of her go-to stylist, often braiding the Australian’s hair.
“She can run the floor really well. She's got really good hands and can catch,” Mangakahia said of the highly-touted freshman. “Moving forward, she'll learn the game and she’ll learn what she can and can't do with the refs. It's a lot different than high school… She'll be a huge asset to us, pushing the floor.”
Syracuse’s next game is Wednesday against Division II Lincoln. It’ll be another opportunity for Mangakahia to shake off the rust and make some magic with her new teammates.
Additional Orange notes:
Hillsman said that Emily Engstler’s injury is “nothing serious” and that “she can play whenever we see fit.” Engstler, a 6-foot-1 junior, did not play in Syracuse’s game vs. Stony Brook. A season ago, she led the Orange in rebounds.
Teisha Hyman will “probably” redshirt this season, Hillsman said Tuesday. The sophomore guard played in 23 games last season before injuring her knee against N.C. State in February. Hillsman said that Hyman could be ready about midway through ACC play this season, but added, “Nothing is worth wasting her four years by throwing her back out there right now. She can use this whole year to rehab.”
Syracuse doesn’t have the contract back yet, but the Orange are expecting to play Penn State at the Carrier Dome this weekend for their final non-conference game before ACC play begins. The game will likely be on Sunday, Dec. 6.