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International experience fuels Syracuse women’s basketball

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Guard Tiana Mangakahia and forward Digna Strautmane earned more recognition for their play this week.

NCAA Womens Basketball: Syracuse at Notre Dame Matt Cashore-USA TODAY Sports

Seven games remain on the Syracuse Orange women’s basketball’s 2017-2018 schedule. The difficult stretch of the season is over, and the remaining Orange opponents are a combined 25-36 in conference play this season. The catch — No. 4 Louisville (8-1 ACC) is one of those opponents, and they come to the Carrier Dome on Sunday. You take out Louisville’s record, and the six remaining opponents are a combined 17-35 in ACC play. Not a bad way to end the season, especially since the Orange are projected as an 8-seed in ESPN’s Charlie Creme’s latest bracketology rankings.

Syracuse entered this season with uncertainties. Who would replace Alexis Peterson at point guard? Who is going to be the scoring option to replace Brittany Sykes? Who will replace the Day sisters in the post?

It feels like all of those questions have turned into answers at this point.

A New Leader

Tiana Mangakahia has been sensational for the Orange this season. The Australian native was announced as a finalist for the 2018 Nancy Lieberman Point Guard Award, which recognizes excellence in performance.

Mangakahia’s predecessor, Alexis Peterson, earned a top-5 finish in the 2017 award standings. Washington’s Kelsey Plum ultimately earned the award.

“I was talking to my parents about (the nomination), and I just feel so happy,” Mangakahia said after Tuesday’s practice. “It’s a very good achievement... I’m just so blessed and thankful that people think that I’m one of the best.”

No Syracuse player has ever won the award, but Mangakahia has a good chance at becoming the first. It’s not just that people thinks that she’s one of the best. The numbers scream that she is. Mangakahia leads the nation in assists (221) and assists per game (10.0), two benchmarks she’s carried throughout the majority of the season. In addition, she leads the Orange in scoring (17.6 points per game) and steals (54) and is tied for 18th in the nation with her 10 double-doubles, trailing only Temple’s Tanaya Atkinson (11) for most double-doubles by a guard.

“They’re different players,” Coach Quentin Hillsman said when comparing his two most recent point guards. “Alexis was a very special scorer, and all of her passes were set up with her ability to score the ball. Tiana is a pass-first guard who has the ability to score points. They’re different players, but they give the same result... (Tiana is) a very explosive passer. She finds players up the floor. She’s very good in the paint, finding open players cutting to the basket.”

Mangakahia brings some international experience to the table. She was on the third-place U19 World Cup Australian team, which competed in Lithuania in 2013.

International Success Stories

In addition to Mangakahia’s recognized successes this season, another Orange starter has once again received national recognition.

Forward Digna Strautmane earned her second ACC Rookie of the Week award of the season following her career day versus Boston College on Sunday. The Latvia native averaged 20.5 points in two games versus Clemson and BC, shooting 10-of-16 from the field against the Eagles. She scored a career-high 25 points in that game.

“It’s always a nice feeling, when people see you,” Strautmane said on Tuesday. “I still have to work a lot. This is not the limit that I can go (to). I can only get better. I have to get better. If I can keep my game up to that level this week against these strong teams, that will say a lot.”

Strautmane is averaging 9.1 points and a team-leading 6.9 rebounds per game this season. She has been able to stretch the floor for Coach Q with her three-point shooting.

“After every practice I’m here in the gym shooting,” Strautmane said. “The coaches are really counting on me to make shots. I feel a responsibility to do it and do it as best as I can. I have to keep shooting and make it, and if I can make (them) with confidence, it’s what coaches want and it’s what’s best for the team.”

Coach Q has taken a noticing to Strautmane’s ability to stretch the floor.

“She can shoot the ball, Q said. “We want her to shoot the ball because she’s capable of shooting it. Earlier in the season, she wasn’t making shots at a high level, but now she’s comfortable — the game’s slowing down for her. She’s making shots, and that’s all you can ask for her to do. Continue to stay aggressive and shoot the ball when she’s open, and she’s doing that right now. It’s paying great dividends for us.”

Strautmane also brings international experience to Q’s squad. Strautmane represented Latvia in three different FIBA tournaments, most recent being the 2017 FIBA U20 European Championship, where she averaged 18.7 points, 7.4 rebounds, and 2.1 assists per game.

Bright Present... and Future

Two of Syracuse’s four new starters have received freshman-themed awards. Mangakahia also received national recognition after scoring 44 points against Georgia Tech in early January. It makes you think of how the Orange is set up for success down the road. What gets overlooked is that reserves Jasmine Nwajei — the lone senior and Marisa Romeo — a graduate student, are Syracuse’s only upperclassmen.

The current Orange starting lineup features two freshmen (Strautmane, Amaya Finklea-Guity), two sophomores (Mangakahia, Gabrielle Cooper), and one junior (Miranda Drummond). Syracuse’s top bench scorer is Isis Young, and she’s also a junior. So for the immediate future, the band will be getting back together next season with Drummond and Young as the seniors. The core of Mangakahia, Cooper, Finklea-Guity, and Strautmane has two more years to play out after this.

So while the Orange await the arrival of McDonald’s All-American Emily Engstler and for French forwards Marie-Paule Foppossi and Maeva Djaldi-Tabdi — a five-star recruit, to come off of their redshirt campaigns, we can enjoy the core of Syracuse women’s basketball’s present and building future right in front of our eyes.

Coach Q is working on something beautiful here. Enjoy it while it’s here.

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Corey Crisan is the Orange Women’s Basketball reporter for TNIAAM. Follow him on Twitter and Instagram @cdcrisan for coverage all season long.