SYRACUSE, N.Y. — Louisville coach Jeff Walz was fresh from an important road victory over Syracuse, and the first thing he wanted to talk about was the Orange’s point guard.
That would be Tiana Mangakahia, a 5-foot-6 sophomore from Australia in her first season of Division I ball. She had 20 points and 10 assists — her 12th double-double of the season — against the fourth-ranked team in the nation, and the Cardinals coach was impressed.
“She is fun to watch,” Walz said after last Sunday’s win. “If you’re a basketball fan and you don’t come out here to watch her, shame on you. She’s a highlight reel. She made some big-time baskets and some big-time plays.”
Mangakahia has been doing that since the start of the season. She had 10 or more assists in her first eight games, and as the regular season winds down leads the nation by a long shot with 244, an average of 10.2 per game. (The Division I record for assists in a season is 355, set by Penn State’s Suzie McConnell in 1987).
What makes Mangakahia’s performance even more remarkable is that she spent the previous two years at Hutchinson Community College in Kansas, a basketball powerhouse at the junior college level that finished 33-2 in 2017, and only played on the scout team.
“What she’s doing, it’s crazy. Crazy,” Syracuse coach Quentin Hillsman marveled.
The sticking point at Hutchinson was a contract Mangakahia had signed with a club in Australia. Hutchinson coach John Ontjes said the National Junior College Athletic Association gave the go-ahead for her to play, but he said the organization also said the issue raised some “red flags” and he opted not to take a chance that might have jeopardized her future.
“She just practiced for us,” Ontjes said. “It was very hard for us because we saw every day what she could do. She was the best player on our team and she made our team better in practice. We knew how much better we could be with her on the floor. She’s really a coach’s dream.”
Mangakahia, who was cleared to play by the NCAA, nearly didn’t stick it out.
“It was very hard,” she said. “The second year was probably the hardest. After the first game of my sophomore year, I said, ‘I don’t know if I can do this all over again.'”
Introduced to basketball at age 5 by her parents, Mangakahia fell in love with the game and honed her skills playing with her five brothers. “I just loved playing,” she said. “I wanted to be on every team.”
She followed good friend Kalani Purcell, a New Zealand native, to Hutchinson, and despite Mangakahia’s role there, scouting services took note.
“They knew how talented Tiana is,” Ontjes said.
Mangakahia chose Syracuse over offers from Kansas, Oklahoma State and UMass, among others, mainly because of Hillsman and his staff.
“The coaches had faith in me and believed in me and my ability,” she said. “I think that has helped my confidence a lot after not playing for two years.”
Mangakahia is quick and shifty and sometimes catches her teammates off-guard with her passes. She has had fewer than eight assists in only three games and has reached double-digit totals 14 times.
“What she can do on the court is amazing,” said teammate Miranda Drummond, a close friend. “If I wasn’t on the team, I’d want to come and see her play.”
At midweek, Mangakahia had 95 more assists than AJ Alix of Florida State, who ranks second in the Atlantic Coast Conference.
“I’ve always been like that,” Mangakahia said. “My dad would always send me YouTube clips of Pistol Pete (Maravich) and Steve Nash because I was always a passer.”
If there’s been one downside, it’s her 138 turnovers, caused in part risky plays. Ontjes attributes the excessive turnover total in part to the two years she didn’t play competitively.
“I anticipate that getting better, especially next year with the amount of games she gets underneath her belt,” he said.
Mangakahia also leads Syracuse in scoring (17.6), including a season-high 44 against Georgia Tech, and tops the ACC in free throws made (118 of 136) and free throw percentage (86.8 percent).
“I believe she’s probably the best point guard in the country when you’re talking about a true point guard,” Ontjes said. “She has such an impact on the game with her ability to make her teammates better. Plus, she’s able to score the basketball.”
Mangakahia’s offensive weakness has been the long ball — she’s shooting just 25 percent from behind the arc (29 of 115). That brings down her overall shooting to 41.7 percent, but it hasn’t affected her cheerful demeanor as she tries to lead the Orange (17-7, 5-6 ACC) into the NCAA Tournament.
“I’m loving this season. I feel like I’m doing great,” Mangakahia said. “I just hope next season is even better.”
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