Tiana Mangakahia was a great player prior to June 2019. One that deserved all of the accolades bestowed upon her as a record setting All-ACC player and All-American. She was already in the discussion of the best player to play for the Syracuse women's basketball program. Then, tragedy. She was diagnosed with stage two breast cancer. It changed her life, changed her focus.
Over the next several months, Tiana battled the most difficult opponent she would ever face. She handled the surgeries, the chemotherapy and all of the side effects that come along with them.
Through it all, Tiana remained positive. Little did cancer know who it was messing with. One of the most competitive, determined athletes I have had the privilege to cover was not going to let that defeat her. That November, just five months after being diagnosed, she claimed victory over the disease as she was declared cancer free.
One year later, she returned to the basketball court. Her return was an inspirational, emotional moment. Not only for her, but everyone watching. From her coaches, teammates, family, the Central New York community and college basketball world.
In 2020 and part of 2021, it was the story we all needed. The uplifting triumph to help us all see some positivity in the midst of a global pandemic that stripped normalcy from every day life. That backdrop makes Mangakahia's return all the more unbelievable. It would have been easy to simply opt out of playing this season and focus on going pro the following year. Instead, Mangakahia blessed us with showcasing her immense talent for 24 games this season. And while the season came to an end Tuesday night, it will never be forgotten.
Cancer is a deadly, unforgiving disease. It does not care how good you are at playing a game, dribbling a ball or making jumpers. Many who are inflicted do not survive. I know this personally as my cousin was taken by cancer earlier this year. While I certainly had appreciation for and admiration of Mangakahia's journey defeating it, I gained even more inspiration with that context.
Sports has a way of uniting. Of inspiring. Of helping a community get through difficult times that are seemingly unrelated. Tiana Mangakahia did all of that and so much more that goes beyond what words can express.
So, Tiana, thank you. Thank you for allowing us to watch you play. Thank you for the inspiration. Thank you for the unwavering positivity. Thank you for the distraction that helped so many navigate these unprecedented times. Best of luck as you begin your professional journey. We will all be cheering for you.