|Pat Summitt, who stepped down
as head coach of Tennessee's women's basketball program in 2012 to
battle Alzheimer's, was there to honor Lauren Hill at
Photo by Adam Turer, D3sports.com
By Adam Turer
CINCINNATI -- Lauren Hill scored the first basket of the 2014-15 college hoops season. There will not be a more meaningful, powerful, or inspirational bucket scored this season.
Two weeks ago, Xavier University’s Cintas Center was sold out as LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers played an exhibition game against the Indiana Pacers. More than 10,000 fans packed the arena on Xavier University’s campus to cheer on their sports hero. Today, the same number of people packed the Cintas Center to cheer on their life hero. When Lauren was introduced during pregame introductions, the pop of the crowd in the arena was bigger and louder than it was for King James.
Call her Queen Lauren.
After the game, Lauren spoke to the sold-out crowd, the largest to ever witness a Division III women's basketball game: “Thank you guys so much for being here and supporting me and supporting pediatric brain cancer. Today’s been the best day I’ve ever had.”
The week began with Lauren kicking off the Layups for Lauren challenge on social media. Her goal was to raise awareness of DIPG by challenging others to spin around five times and make a layup with their non-dominant hand, simulating Lauren’s on-court struggles with dizziness and weakness of her right side. Funds raised go to The Cure Starts Now. Her story and message garnered international attention building up to the Sunday’s game.
The Mount St. Joseph freshman entered the starting lineup. The Lions won the tip. Tara Dennis set a screen on the right elbow. Hill flashed to the left block. She received a perfect bounce pass from Taylor Brown, also making her first start. Hill, a natural righty forced by her illness to rely solely on her left hand, elevated and executed a smooth layup for her first two points.
“It’s a dream come true to play on a college court. To be able to get there and be able to put my foot down and feel the roar of the crowd and the vibration of the floorboards, I just love it so much. I love basketball,” said Lauren following the game. “It’s been amazing. I feel so blessed that this is all happening.”
As soon as the ball found the bottom of the net, the Lions’ bench stormed the court. The team met Lauren in an embrace at midcourt. The game was paused as the team hugged and cried and smiled. Lauren was presented with the game ball. Then, she went to the bench, donned her headphones and sunglasses to help with her sensitivity to noise and bright light, and enjoyed her teammates’ performance. With 25.6 seconds to play and the Lions up 64-55, the crowd began a “We Want Lauren” chant. Benjamin responded, and the woman of the day re-entered the game. She missed her next shot, then got another chance. This time, she delivered from the right side. Lauren scored the first and last baskets of the game, a 66-55 Lions victory.
|Lauren Hill scored two baskets on Sunday, one to
start the game and one to end it.
Mount St. Joseph athletics photo
“The first basket was awesome and I was happy I made it on my first try,” said Lauren. “The second shot was just as sweet.”
The Division III community came out to support Lauren. Teams from the Heartland Collegiate Athletic Conference, along with local teams from Thomas More, Cincinnati, and Xavier and a host of area high school programs were on hand. Following the game, the teams from the Heartland Conference met with the Lions for several minutes to share with Lauren what she means to each of their teams.
“We get caught up competing so much that we forget about things in life. I think that’s what we made a statement about today,” said Lions head coach Dan Benjamin. “We talked about being a D-III athlete and how important that is to be a student and then an athlete second.”
Competition took a distant backseat on Sunday. Franklin College’s women’s hoops team was one of several that made the trek to Cincinnati to cheer on one of their biggest rivals.
“She is absolutely an inspiration,” said Franklin sophomore guard Lexi Ingram. “We have been talking and thinking about how hard it would be to be in her position. We’re real excited to be here and be part of this big day for her.”
Mount St. Joseph’s athletic teams also came out in full force. The day student tickets went on sale, there was a line out the door 45 minutes prior to the sale. Lauren has given every student-athlete a greater perspective on the joy of playing sports.
“It makes you appreciate playing every game like it’s your last even more,” said Lions softball player Paige Norton. “Her outlook on everything is an inspiration.”
Earlier on Sunday, the Mount St. Joseph campus gave the basketball team a pep rally. After lining the campus streets to send off the team bus early Sunday morning, they packed the Cintas Center. There is more camaraderie and appreciation between Lions athletes than ever before, thanks to Lauren’s relentless positivity.
“The atmosphere was so positive and uplifting,” said Norton of the morning send-off. “We already are a team at the Mount, but we are more tight than we’ve ever been.”
The Lions baseball team participated in the send-off and attended the game. They recently began winter workouts, the bane of every baseball player’s offseason. This year feels different, thanks to Lauren.
“Every day we push ourselves 10 times harder than we ever have before,” said Tyler Pasch. “It’s amazing how one person can make us work that much harder.”
|A capacity crowd came out to
support Lauren Hill.
Heartland Collegiate Athletic Conference photo
There was still a basketball game to play. The Lions played with passion, attacking the offensive boards and diving on the floor for loose balls. After Lauren was substituted out, the Lions forced turnovers on three consecutive Hiram possessions en route to a 8-0 lead. Hiram did not lay down. Both teams competed. Lauren wouldn’t want it any other way.
“We want to go out there and play our best because we feel like that’s the best way to honor Lauren,” said Hiram coach Emily Hays prior to Sunday’s game.
The Hiram community sold shirts to raise money for The Cure Starts Now. This was Hays’ first game as head coach, but she knew that the focus was not on her or her players.
“We look at the bigger picture and how we can be a part of something bigger and something special. We’ll probably never have an opportunity to help someone like this in this way again,” said Hays.
“Our whole focus on this game is on the true meaning of this game and raising awareness. This game really is bigger than basketball.”
The cities of Lawrenceburg, Ind., and Cincinnati feel fortunate to have Lauren represent and inspire them. Lawrenceburg High School’s cheerleaders joined Mount St. Joseph’s. Mount St. Joseph University has not known the freshman for long, but she has had an immediate, powerful, and lasting impact that will never be forgotten.
“We know that we’re all blessed to play a sport and to have someone like her come to the Mount,” said Pasch. “She is an inspiration.”
Prior to tip off, Lauren’s doctors and pediatric care team were shown on the video board partaking in the Layups 4 Lauren challenge. That was followed by a photo montage of Lauren. Mount St. Joseph president Tony Aretz gave a passionate speech about the meaning of today’s game. During commercial breaks, Layups 4 Lauren participants were shown on the video board.
At halftime, Lauren was presented with the Pat Summitt Most Courageous award by the U.S. Basketball Writers Association. She was presented the award by writer Mel Greenberg, Tamika Catchings, and, in a surprise appearance, the legendary Tennessee coach herself.
After embracing Summitt, Lauren was handed the microphone. She was overcome with emotion, but thanked all those for attending and supporting her cause to kill DIPG. Following the game, Lauren received the Greater Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky Women’s Sports Association’s Wilma Rudolph Courage Award. That led to the crowd chanting her name again.
A host of WNBA stars were on hand to cheer on Lauren. Indiana Fever head coach Stephanie White announced that the organization was donating $5,000 to The Cure Starts Now. American Sports Network, which broadcast the game nationally, announced that it will broadcast an annual Lauren Hill game in the coming seasons.
The Cure Starts Now raised over $70,000 on Sunday. And counting.