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The return of breast cancer survivor and All-American honorable mention point guard Tiana Mangakahia is officially here.
On Friday, Syracuse announced the NCAA granted Mangakahia, 25, an eligibility waiver to compete in the 2020-21 season.
“I just want to say I’m super happy about this news,” Mangakahia said to open her virtual press conference Friday. “I just feel very excited for the season and I feel very blessed to have this opportunity again.”
The NCAA’s decision was expected, but nevertheless relieving, Mangakahia and SU head coach Quentin Hillsman said. In petition letters to the NCAA, Hillsman had to relive everything that transpired for Mangakahia — the diagnosis, the eight draining chemotherapy sessions, the countless team visits to the hospital, the double mastectomy.
Now Mangakahia’s entering her final year at SU, coming off an offseason spent home in Australia. She admitted she’s probably a seven or eight out of 10 in terms of her conditioning but isn’t worried about that come the Nov. 25 season-opener. She said she’s nervous, but ready.
“Just really thinking about everything, knowing I did all of that to be on the court,” Mangakahia said. “I got through all of that, now it’s time to step back and do what I came to Syracuse for.”
Mangakahia, who was diagnosed with invasive ductal carcinoma in June of 2019, sat out last season to undergo treatment. She went to as many practices as possible and acted as an extra assistant coach on the bench throughout the season. In November, she was declared cancer-free.
Syracuse’s all-time leader in career assists, Mangakahia averaged 16.9 points, 8.4 assists and 4.9 rebounds per game as a junior. As a sophomore, she led the nation in assists per game (9.8).
“She’s like the eighth, ninth man right now,” Hillsman joked.
Hillsman said Syracuse has the best backcourt in the nation — “it’s not just coach talk” — as the Orange return 2019 first team All-ACC Kiara Lewis. In preseason scrimmages, Mangakahia said she and Lewis hype each other up. “No one can guard us,” they tell each other.
Putting the ball in pass-first Mangakahia’s hands and moving Lewis to her more natural position of shooting guard will prevent opposing defense from keying their scheme too much toward one or the other, Hillsman said.
Syracuse also brings back star emerging point forward Emily Engstler and the No. 4 recruiting class — Hillsman’s best haul of his tenure — highlighted by No. 5 overall prospect Kamilla Cardoso.
Syracuse was ranked No. 23 in the nation in ESPN’s way-too-early list. The Orange were bounced out of the ACC tournament by top-seeded Louisville last year and likely would’ve missed the NCAA tournament, which was canceled due to COVID-19. But that was with Mangakahia on the sidelines.
“From a leadership standpoint, having her at the highest level is everything,” Hillsman said.
“Tiana has really achieved a lot here at Syracuse, up until this point,” he added. “And obviously moving forward, she should continue to build on that. Showing the toughness from coming, being diagnosed to now, is just a tremendous feat in itself. So I think that toughness should translate into everything we do on and off the court.”
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