Mangakahia gives Syracuse a playmaker from down under

SU vs. Maryland Eastern Shore (Photos by Michael J. Okoniewski - SU Athletic Communications)
SU vs. Maryland Eastern Shore (Photos by Michael J. Okoniewski - SU Athletic Communications) /

The text messages are waiting for Tiana Mangakahia when she returns to the locker room.

Mangakahia’s five brothers back in Australia typically can’t wait to express their feelings until the game is over. They send their advice in short bursts throughout each quarter.

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They let Mangakahia know when she should have shot or could have made a pass. They compliment her on a move to the basket or an assist that drew cheers from the crowd.

The time difference is crazy, so some of our games are at 5 a.m. but they all still wake up and watch,” Mangakahia told The Summitt in a phone interview last week. “They are all very supportive. I think my dad is probably the biggest fan. He wakes up at 2 just to watch me.”

Mangakahia is starting to make a lot more people tune in and get a glimpse of the prolific-passing sophomore point guard.

In her her first season at Syracuse, the junior college transfer is averaging a nation-leading 11.4 assists to go along with 16.0 points per game for the still undefeated Orange (11-0).

Mangakahia and Syracuse will be taking a big step up in competition beginning this week, when the Orange play No. 5 Mississippi State on Thursday in the Duel In The Desert in Las Vegas. Syracuse opens ACC play against No. 2 Notre Dame on Dec. 28 in South Bend.

Mangakahia has guided the Syracuse offense through its unblemished start with her unselfish passing.

The only time she hasn’t recorded double-digit assists this season was against Colgate, when she had nine in 28 minutes. She registered a season-high 17 assists against Vanderbilt, and has nine double-doubles in 11 games.

She really sees the game. What I mean by that is she sees the play before it happens and the situations before they happen,” Syracuse head coach Quentin Hillsman said. “That is the mark of a good point guard. They can see the situation before it happens.”

SYRACUSE, NY – NOVEMBER 30: Tiana Mangakahia
SYRACUSE, NY – NOVEMBER 30: Tiana Mangakahia /

The 5-foot-6 Mangakahia says her passing ability comes naturally. She wasn’t taught specifically how to anticipate a teammate’s movement or a defender’s reaction.

That has always been my game. I am not really sure how it developed,” she said. “I know my uncle would make crazy passes when we would go play pickup at home, so maybe I got it from him. It’s just always been my game and I like to get my teammates involved.”

Mangakahia grew up in Meadowbrook, Australia with four older brothers and one younger brother. If her oldest brother hadn’t liked basketball, she might not be playing the sport today.

He got invited to play on a team and loved it and my parents put all of us in the same sport so they just had to go to one venue for the day,” Mangakahia said. “Obviously, we didn’t think that I was going to come this far. But I loved the sport and wanted to keep playing and getting better.”

Mangakahia lived away from home for two years while attending the Australian Institute of Sport. She played on Australia’s Under-17 and Under-19 national teams.

Throughout her childhood, Mangakahia could always rely on her brothers to help mold her game. She developed her resourcefulness to hold her own during family pickup games.

They definitely helped me become a better player. We would all be outside playing and they would not go easy on me at all,” she said. “They treated me like one of them, so it definitely helped my toughness and kind of my grit. You don’t let anyone push you around or anything.”

Before the 2015 season, Mangakahia was contacted on Facebook about coming to the United States to play at Hutchinson Community College in Kansas.

Former BYU forward Kalani Purcell, a New Zealand native, played at Hutchinson and gave Mangakahia a good recommendation about the school.

Mangakahia sat out her first season at Hutchinson to make sure she met the qualification standards as an international player. Last season, she helped Hutchinson finish 33-2 and win a region championship.

Give their coaching staff a lot of credit. They had her best interest in mind and tried to establish as much eligibility as they could salvage,” Hillsman said, referring to Hutchinson head coach John Ontjes and assistants Travis Kirk and Phil Anderson. “They could have played her and let her bite the bullet, but they really did a good job of saving her eligibility and giving her a chance to play the most years possible at the Division I level. It says a lot about them. They are very honorable guys and they did right by her.”

Mangakahia was on Syracuse’s radar long before Hutchinson. Hillsman had watched her play during international competitions in high school.

I never thought she would come over to the states because she was such an exceptional talent,” Hillsman said. “When she surfaced at the junior college level, our staff knew exactly who she was and knew we had to get in early on her. I was shocked that she did not have more interest.”

Mangakahia calls attending Syracuse “the best decision I have made and a great opportunity for me.” As for the winter weather, that adjustment remains a work in progress.

I am not really used to it and I don’t think you ever get used to it,” she said. “Like it was snowing today bad and it was windy and not very nice. But I have some coats and some beanies and scarves and gloves.”

SYRACUSE, NY – NOVEMBER 30: Tiana Mangakahia
SYRACUSE, NY – NOVEMBER 30: Tiana Mangakahia /

Mangakahia possesses a level of self awareness about her immediate impact at the Division I level. She realizes some of the passing lanes that are open now may close the more she plays.

No one knows my game and I think that is why at the moment am doing so well. No one has seen me play,” she said. “I still feel like I can do well even when they do know my game. But teams are going to start scouting me and watching me so they are going to have a game plan for that. I just have to push through. We all do as a team.”

Mangakahia never keeps track of her assists on the court. She may find out after the game if someone tells her or if she sees a stat sheet.

Mangakahia knows there is room for improvement. The double-digits assists are offset slightly by the 4.2 turnovers she’s averaging per game.

She’s still learning about her teammates and about the opponents Syracuse is playing.

I think as the season goes on the chemistry will get better with everyone and they will be able to know when I am passing them the ball,” she said. “I feel like we are all still getting used to each other, so I think it’s going to get better as we go along.”

Mangakahia appreciates Hillsman giving her freedom to operate on the court as long as she doesn’t get too flashy.

Asked which pass is her favorite, Mangakahia said: “Probably behind the back. I did it in a game and got a turnover and coach pulled me off. But I did in a game the other day and it worked and he was happy. I just need to make sure they work.”

Mangakahia’s parents are coming to the U.S. from Australia this week to watch Syracuse play and spend the holiday break with their daughter. After staying in Las Vegas, the family plans to return to the East Coast and tour New York City.

Mangakahia’s brothers will keep watching her games from Australia and flooding her phone with text messages. She hopes the international advice stretches deep into March, when the stakes get much bigger and the intensity much greater.

I think that we can obviously get to the NCAA tournament. We need to make sure we are on top of everything and working together as a team,” Mangakahia said. “We have a few hard games coming up like Mississippi State and Notre Dame that will really show people how we do in tough situations. I think we have the capability to win those games.”