Basketball might be a team sport, but Mount St. Joseph University freshman Lauren Hill was clearly the star of the court Sunday in Ohio’s Cintas Center in Cincinnati.
Her name was plastered on posters and signs waving in the stands. Much of the sold-out crowd of more than 10,000 fans wore T-shirts and sweatshirts bearing her name and the slogan “Never Give Up.” Some had her jersey number, 22, painted on their faces.
Mount St. Joseph already had a 64-55 lead over Hiram College when Hill came off the bench in response to chants of “we want Lauren,” hitting the final layup in the last nine seconds of the game. The thunderous cheers underscored the significance of the shot, which could be the last of Hill’s collegiate career and her life.
The 19-year-old freshman is dying from a rare form of brain cancer called Diffuse Intrinsic Pontine Glioma. When doctors told her she did not have much time left, her school asked the NCAA if it could move up its season opener by two weeks to Sunday so Hill could play her first collegiate basketball game.
The answer was yes, prompting an outpouring of support from the greater Cincinnati community and beyond, culminating in Sunday’s game.
“Today has been the best day I’ve ever had,” a tearful Hill told the crowd after the game as she accepted the Wilma Rudolph Courage Award for overcome adversity and serving as positive role model.
“I don’t know what to say but thank you.”
Her diagnosis came during her final year of high school. A few weeks before she found out, she’d signed up to play basketball at Mount St. Joseph. Undeterred, she played ball in high school despite rounds of chemotherapy for her inoperable tumor.
“I never gave up for a second even when I got a terminal diagnosis; never thought about sitting back and not living life anymore,” she told CNN affiliate WKRC.
Hill’s story touched people around the country after WKRC shared her story. Xavier University donated court space at Cintas Center when it became demand for tickets outnumbered available seats at Mount St. Joseph. Sports teams around the country took the #LayUp4Lauren challenge to raise money for pediatric brain cancer, from the Cincinnati Bengals to the Harlem Globetrotters.
In an unprecedented move, the U.S. Basketball Writers Association also honored Hill Sunday during half-time with the Pat Summitt Most Courageous Award, a distinction normally reserved for a women’s coach or player during the Women’s Final Four.
Pro athletes such as WNBA all-star Tamika Catchings were touched by her story and attended Sunday’s game.
“The thing about her is she’s just so positive,” Catchings told WKRC. “No matter what she’s going through she’s still doing what it takes to raise awareness and help others.”