For Syracuse’s Tiana Mangakahia, staying true to her game is as important as protecting the ball

first_img Published on February 21, 2018 at 11:21 pm Contact Andrew: [email protected] | @A_E_Graham The magic number for Tiana Mangakahia is eight.Playing point guard and running the offense, Mangakahia has the ball in her hands for a majority of the game, and when she turns the ball over eight times or more, Syracuse often loses. So far this season, Mangakahia’s averaged 4.5 turnovers in wins as opposed to 8.6 in losses.“For any game the goal is to stay under five,” Mangakahia said. “More than five is not good. I want zero.”Taking care of the ball is key for Mangakahia and Syracuse (20-7, 7-6 Atlantic Coast) with two regular season games remaining and the ACC tournament looming. Save for a handful of outliers, the eight-turnover trend holds strong across Mangakahia’s body of work this season, so when the Orange visits North Carolina (14-13, 4-10) on Thursday, it’ll hope its star point guard, who leads the country in assists per game with 9.9, keeps the turnovers to a minimum while still maintaining her electric passing.“I’m just going to keep playing the way I play,” Mangakahia said. “I’m not going to stop. If I think I’m forcing it, I’ll slow down and try to take care of the ball more, but if I see an opening of a no-look pass or threading the needle, I will try to get that there.”AdvertisementThis is placeholder textMangakahia’s vision, players and coaches agree, is what makes her so good for SU. In games, she fires surgical passes, often without even looking where they’re going. In practice, teammates are still occasionally caught off guard by the passes Mangakahia can, and does, make, they said.Against then-No. 17 Duke on Feb. 15, Syracuse led by three with 10.8 seconds until halftime. As the clock dwindled, Mangakahia slipped a screen and drove right while the screener, freshman center Amaya Finklea-Guity, rolled parallel to her on the other side of the paint. As four Blue Devils defenders converged on Mangakahia, she stared at the rim while zipping a no-look pass through a thicket of arms to Finklea-Guity for a buzzer-beating layup.Kevin Camelo | Digital Design EditorBut what makes Mangakahia such a lethal passer has at times been her Achilles’ heel. If teammates aren’t ready for the ball to find them, or Mangakahia simply tries to force a pass, it frequently results in the opposition running out in transition.This happened midway through the first quarter against then-No. 4 Louisville on Feb. 4 when Mangakahia slipped past a defender pressuring her and tried to push a no-look pass to Isis Young on the right wing. Instead, star UofL guard Asia Durr deflected the pass and went coast-to-coast for two points.Syracuse’s coaching staff doesn’t necessarily want to reign in Mangakahia’s circus passing, but rather impress upon her that the highlight pass isn’t always the best pass.“She’s really having to adjust to the different coverages she’s seeing out there,” SU associate head coach Vonn Read said. “I think she’s getting better at doing that.”Coming off a ball screen at the top of arc is when Mangakahia is most prone for turnovers, she said. She moves around the screen and then assesses the five options before her. She could kick the ball back to the screener for a pick-and-pop 3 — often Digna Strautmane sets screens as SU’s lone big that can consistently shoot 3s — or float the ball down low to Finklea-Guity, SU’s other post player.Beyond the two bigs, Mangakahia also has shooters — generally Gabrielle Cooper and Miranda Drummond — in each corner. She could pass the ball straight ahead off a screen to the near corner, or make a skip pass cross-court to the opposite shooter.And if the defense doesn’t collapse on her, Mangakahia can always take the ball to the basket herself. In the split-second coming off a screen, she needs to survey all five options and pick the right one.“The game is happening so fast, and Tiana plays with such instinct that she’s just going to try and make the right play,” Read said, “and I think her film work is helping her to do a little bit better in that area.”Recognizing how defenses react off a ball screen is, at best, extremely difficult to identify and learn in-game or purely in practice, Read said. So, Mangakahia has delved into game film.For the last few weeks, she’s started having solo film sessions with SU head coach Quentin Hillsman, where the two analyze plays in-depth. It’s a chance for Hillsman to tell his point guard what he wants her to do in a certain scenario, and an opportunity for Mangakahia to diagnose issues in how she reads defenses.Kevin Camelo | Digital Design Editor“We just sit down and go through four, five clips and tell her what she needs to look for and I want to take her opinion, ‘What were you looking for?’” Hillsman said.Once she’s sifted through enough film, Mangakahia takes the lessons learned and applies them on the practice court, repeatedly playing through ball-screen scenarios. The hope is relentless repetition will make reading defenses in games second nature.And if the numbers mean anything, all the extra attention to detail is starting to pay off. Across SU’s last eight games, Mangakahia is averaging 4.75 turnovers a game. In that stretch, which started on Jan. 21 with a 70-52 win over Pittsburgh, SU is 6-2. Mangakahia had three turnovers in that game. She’s only exceeded seven turnovers once in that span — 10 in SU’s 84-77 loss to then-No. 4 Louisville. The other loss, 73-64 to Virginia Tech, is an outlier, as Mangakahia had just five turnovers.Then, a week after the Louisville loss, when SU played Wake Forest, Mangakahia orchestrated SU’s offense perfectly. With 4:34 left in the second quarter, Mangakahia caught the ball at the top of the arc. SU trailed, 38-19.Finklea-Guity came from the low post and set a ball screen on Mangakahia’s defender. As Finklea-Guity slipped toward the basket unmarked, Mangakahia floated her a pass for an easy two.At game’s end, SU was victorious, overcoming a 21-point deficit on the road. Mangakahia had zero turnovers in a game for the first time all season.“Sometimes I’m really stressing and nervous,” Mangakahia said, “telling myself I need to limit turnovers. That game, I wasn’t thinking about it as much and I just played freely.”Hopefully for SU, she plays freely for the foreseeable future. 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