Standout Mangakahia has found her balance at Syracuse

Tiana Magankahia is Syracuse's leading scorer and is the Division I co-leader for assists. Photo courtesy of Syracuse Athletics.
Tiana Magankahia is Syracuse’s leading scorer and is the Division I co-leader for assists. Photo courtesy of Syracuse Athletics.

Tiana Mangakahia sees all the angles.

When the Syracuse point guard needs some misdirection to fool a defense, she’ll give a ball fake or behind-the-back pass, or thread the needle with a no-looker. However she needs to get the ball to her teammates, she finds a way.

In transition, Magankahia will change speed for just a few steps at a time, exploring the space and using tempo to manipulate defenders and tilt the court. When she doesn’t see a passing lane, she creates one. She is a cartographer of new horizons.

The Australian native was a revelation last season as a freshman, leading Syracuse to a top 10 ranking and into the NCAA Tournament. This year she is charting yet another new course. Her scoring average has receded a bit, from 19 per game to 15.4 this season. But Magankahia is more poised and balanced – a more complete player. She and Oregon’s Sabrina Ionescu are tops in Division I for assists, averaging 8.2 per game. And the Orange’s leading scorer is on watch lists for both the Lieberman and Wooden Awards.

Yet, though her team keys off of her, Magankahia’s journey to becoming one of the NCAA’s best started practically without a map.

“She’s a worker, she wants to be great,” Syracuse head coach Qunetin Hillsman said. “She’s always studying and looking to get better.”

As a kid in Brisbane, Australia, Mangakahia learned the game playing pick-up ball with her five brothers. She didn’t really have a choice.

“Growing up, there weren’t any games that were on TV,” she said.

Instead, she conjured her hoop dreams out of a single name.

“(Fellow Australian) Lauren Jackson was really big when I was younger. She was, like, in her prime,” Mangakahia said. “She was always talked about back home. I knew she played in the WNBA, so that was always a dream of mine.”

That goal, coupled with her already-prodigious talent, led to progressively bigger opportunities for Mangakahia.

“When I was 16, I got a scholarship to the Australian Institute of Sport,” she said. “I was with players who are in the WNBA now, like (current Phoenix Mercury forward) Steph Talbot. I was playing against older players, and I thought that really helped my exposure coming out of there.”

AIS put an emphasis on basketball fundamentals, and Mangakahia took those lessons to heart. She helped Australia’s U19 team to a bronze medal finish in the 2013 FIBA World Championship, and she played the 2013-14 season with the Australian WNBL’s Townsville Fire. Hillsman thinks Mangakahia’s early experience has contributed to her collegiate success.

“She’s played a lot of basketball in her day. I think it comes from the minutes on the court,” he said. “The more you play, the better you’re going to get. She’s a very savvy point guard, and that comes from her playing experience.”

Tiana Magankahia no-look passes to a teammate. Photo courtesy of Syracuse Athletics.
Tiana Magankahia no-look passes to a teammate. Photo courtesy of Syracuse Athletics.

Mangakahia’s next stop was an unexpected one. Forward Kalani Purcell, who Mangakahia grew up playing alongside, wound up at Hutchinson Community College in Kansas. It was a choice that would change both girls’ lives.

“When Kalani went there, the coach (John Ontjes) asked her if there were any guards that she knew of, and she mentioned me,” Mangakahia said. “So they called me up.”

A six-month courtship followed. Mangakahia was reluctant to move halfway across the planet to play ball, but phone calls, emails, and Purcell’s endorsement of the school finally led to what she now calls “probably the best decision I ever made.”

There was a hitch, though. An amateur contract she’d signed back in Australia rendered Mangakahia ineligible to play immediately under NJCAA rules, and she had to sit out for two seasons before regaining her eligibility. So she used the setback as a learning opportunity, growing as both a player and a leader.

“I was appreciating the game more,” she said. “I think some people don’t appreciate their love for the game until they lose it. Coach let me give my opinion, he let me observe and get a better understanding of things, and that definitely helped me on the court.”

Mangakahia kept grinding despite the adversity, and eventually it paid off. She couldn’t play games in-season, but was allowed to participate in preseason tournaments, where she attracted attention from larger schools, which led to playing at Syracuse.

From this time she developed composure, which has become her signature. Very few collegiate players possess her combination of court vision and passing acumen. Her passes are artful and expansive, as she deftly controls the offense and propels her team forward.

“You have a very rich crop of point guards in the game right now,” Hillsman said. “And I do believe Tiana is in the top order of those kids. I think she’s right at the top of that point guard list.”

Passing is not only Mangakahia’s best on-court skill, it is the element of the game in which she finds the most joy. She prides herself on her creativity and vision.

“I’m a point guard, so I do enjoy it a lot,” she said. “I’d say I prefer that feeling of making a great slot pass. Not many point guards feel that anymore. I think that’s what makes me different from other players.”

Mangakahia said looking to score first did not come quite as naturally for her. She and Hillsman have worked together in finding the right balance between her distribution and scoring.

“The biggest thing was her being able to create her offense within our system. We need her to be a little bit more aggressive in picking her challenges in when to kind of take the game over,” Hillsman said. “She’d doing a really good job of recognizing when she needs to score the ball, and when she needs to get other people involved.”

Hillsman said Mangakahia “got a lot of hard work in over the summer,” and the result can be seen in her scoring ability. Her raw totals are down from last year, beginning with her minutes, which Hillsman reduced to preserve her for burst moments. But, her shooting splits have improved. Behind the arc, especially, she’s gone from 28.9 to 33.7 percent this year.

Mangakahia’s quiet brand of leadership is another thing that sets her apart. She is not an in-your-face type. When she does get some precious down time, she takes a low-key approach, preferring dinners with friends or watching movies at home.

Tiana Magankahia's commanding floor presence has steered the Orange. Photo courtesy of Syracuse Athletics.
Tiana Magankahia’s commanding floor presence has steered the Orange. Photo courtesy of Syracuse Athletics.

“She’s more of a lead by example player,” Hillsman said. “She plays hard, and she comes every day ready to work. Your best players have to be your hardest workers.”

All of Mangakahia’s past experiences have made her the player she is today. Under Hillsman’s tutelage, she is playing the best basketball of her life. She cites last year’s loss to Oklahoma State in the first round of the NCAA tournament as a turning point.

“I didn’t have a good game,” she said. “I don’t know how many turnovers I had, but it was a lot. I’ve gotten better in decision making. I think I’ve grown a lot in that aspect. I’m taking care of the ball, and Coach Q has been very helpful about that.”

Like everything else, she’s explored that element of her game nd plotted it out to avoid pitfalls. Now Mangakahia is looking to lead Syracuse to a better finish this year. The No. 16 Orange are currently 18-6 (7-4 ACC). Where they go from here is anyone’s guess, but Mangakahia’s map is well-charted. Her compass points true north.

“Whenever we need a big basket, whenever we need something to happen offensively, she’s always there to make a play,” Hillsman said.

Mangakahia has finally found the balance she needs to lead her team.

“You can push the ball and go for it, or you can slow it down and let it play out,” Mangakahia said. “He’s really helped me to understand when I should push it.”