Now cancer-free, Syracuse’s All-American guard prepares her comeback
It’s official: Tiana Mangakahia is cleared to return to practice with her Syracuse Orange.
But from Syracuse’s standpoint, the star guard never really left the game — not when she announced her breast cancer diagnosis in July, not as she underwent chemotherapy and surgery and certainly not as the 2019-20 season began without her in an Orange uniform.
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Tabbed as Syracuse’s unofficial assistant coach this season, Mangakahia has stayed close to the team, opting to remain in the United States to complete treatment rather than travel home to her native Australia. It’s a decision that head coach Quentin Hillsman gently pushed her toward, and he’s been happy to have her on the bench this season, albeit in a different capacity.
“She’s into it. And to her defense, I don’t know if I could be over there and not be trying to help out and not trying to coach either. She’s been remarkable as far as helping our younger kids,” Hillsman told Syracuse.com in December, when Mangakahia was named the outlet’s 2019 Sportsperson of the Year.
Her diagnosis came in July, just a few months after she announced she would remain at Syracuse for her final year of eligibility rather than enter the WNBA Draft. Mangakahia underwent surgery in November, a successful double mastectomy, and has stayed close with the team ever since.
She began rehab exercises to regain her strength after surgery, and was even cleared to play pickup games — though she noticed right away that, obviously, she wasn’t where she wanted to be, physically.
“I actually did pretty good compared to what I thought I would do,” Mangakahia said. “I didn’t get as tired [as I thought], but I was more like I couldn’t shoot as strong.”
Despite all she’s been through since last summer, Mangakahia’s goals remain the same: Play in the WNBA, and represent Team Australia at the Olympics. (“There’s always Paris 2024, right?” she told ESPN.)
But first, her return to Syracuse as a player. She’ll have a few more weeks to practice with the team as they finish the regular season and enter the postseason. Then, after the Orange’s season ends, Mangakahia will petition the NCAA to regain that lost year of eligibility.
Mangakahia has been connecting with the Syracuse community — and the cancer community — in the meantime, though. She organized a golf tournament in May to raise money for breast cancer research (ESPN’s Holly Rowe will also be in attendance), talks to fellow cancer patients on social media and speaks to groups about maintaining her optimism during her cancer journey.
That part — determination, optimism — has been a central part of Mangakahia’s outlook since her diagnosis. She’s always tried to stay the same person she was before, and says that staying true to herself has helped her.
“You just have to stay strong throughout everything no matter what trials come at you,” Mangakahia said. “Wherever I talk, what I talk about is positivity and just not giving up.”
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