Lauren Hill’s first game, a moving and emotional masterpiece
One last game. That’s the way Lauren Hill and Mount St. Joseph’s game against Hiram College was being billed, and almost everyone thought of it that way. Everyone besides Lauren, that is.
"’One Last Game’ that’s kinda scary," said Hill. "Don’t we have a game next week? I don’t want it to be my last game and I don’t plan on it being my last game."
Sunday wasn’t a day of lasts; it was a day of firsts.
Lauren Hill’s first time donning her No. 22 for Mount St. Joseph. Her first collegiate game. Her first collegiate basket.
It didn’t have a feeling of finality, because, if Sunday is anything to judge, Lauren’s legacy will forever stick with people.
Hill’s impact was felt as soon as you walked through the doors of Xavier’s Cintas Center. Shirts with, ‘We play for 22’ on the back were everywhere you turned. You could feel that something special was about to take place.
Hill took time prior to tipoff to meet with families from The Cure Starts Now, a Cancer Research Foundation that she is helping to raise money for, and 11-year old Cynthia Towne had the perfect word to describe her.
"She’s very brave," Cynthia said minutes after meeting Hill.
Cynthia is exactly right, Lauren Hill is extremely brave.
Hill is not only brave for fighting Diffuse Intrinsic Pontine Giloma, an inoperable brain cancer, but she is brave for taking her disease and using it as a chance to change the lives of millions of others.
Cynthia’s mother, Katie Towne, said Hill represents hope.
"To me, she just embodies hope, because she has done all of this knowing that she will not reap the benefits of the awareness she’s bringing to the underfunding of pediatric brain cancer research or any type of cancer research," said Katie Towne. "She is doing this completely with the hope that she will be able to impact kids that come after her, and that’s just an amazing thing for someone so young to be able to have that perspective and strength knowing she has such a limited amount of time left here on Earth."
Hill has known since a visit to her doctor in September that her time was limited, and there was no question what she wanted to do with her time left.
She did just that on Sunday. She played perfectly.
Hill was in on the first play and made the first layup of the game, which completely brought the house down.
‘Lauren’s layup’ was the play call, and Lauren got a pass inside the paint laying the ball in on her first attempt. Part of the #Layup4Lauren challenge requires use of the left-hand, and for her own layup, Lauren obliged.
The capacity crowd of over 10,000 came to their feet and chants of ‘Lauren Hill’ rang throughout the Cintas Center. The moment wasn’t lost on anyone, including the opposing Hiram players who were visibly emotional following Hill’s layup.
After sinking her first collegiate shot, Lauren was mobbed by her teammates all holding up 22s on their fingers at half court and guiding her to the sidelines and the waiting arms of her coach Dan Benjamin.
Benjamin had no doubt Lauren would sink her first layup.
"I knew she was going to make that layup."
Moments later, Hill said during a TV interview: "I’ve never felt this good in my life.
"It’s a dream come true to play on the college court. And it was so thrilling to be able to get there and put my foot down, and just feel the roar of the crowd and the vibrations of the floorboards. I just I love it so much."
The rest of the game was filled with video tributes to Lauren from numerous basketball teams, coaches, and local celebrities.
Bengals quarterback Andy Dalton and left tackle Andrew Whitworth stopped by with a video message for Hill, and defensive tackle Devon Still, whose daughter suffers from pediatric cancer, had a message of his own for Lauren telling her, "We’re on the same team now Lauren."
As we all are.
There was also a large contingent of recognizable faces in the audience, including WNBA players Skylar Diggins, Elena Della Donne, and Tamika Catchings. Perhaps the most recognizable face was former Tennessee head coach Pat Summitt.
With just under a minute left to play, Mount St. Joseph had a nine-point lead and chants of ‘We want Lauren’ came from the students’ section.
Benjamin took a timeout and substituted Lauren back into the game.
"I looked up and saw we were up by seven and I kept praying that we’d get a few more buckets," said Benjamin on the decision to reinsert Lauren. "I looked at my assistant, coach (Jared) Niessen, and I said ‘Get Lauren and get Brooke ready we’re going to put them back in’, and so obviously when the fans started chanting Lauren’s name there was no doubt we were putting her back in."
Coming off a screen on the elbow, she got another chance to drop in a layup. She missed her first attempt but her second shot, this one with her right hand, dropped.
"Both baskets were good," Hill said on her 2-of-3 shooting day. "The first basket was good, and I was happy I made it on the first try. The second basket was even more awesome because I made it with my right hand, which is the hand I have been having difficulties with, and I was strong enough to get it up there."
Mount St. Joseph won the game, 66-55. It was another first for Hill; her first chance to celebrate a collegiate win.
"Well, I know I’m going to get a good night’s sleep tonight. It’s been a long day," she said.
If anyone deserves a good night’s sleep, it’s Hill.
Not only did she score the first and last basket of one of the most memorable basketball games ever, but in doing so she taught each and every one of us a lesson about life.
Sports impact us in mysterious ways and many times it allows us to heal.
Basketball has allowed Lauren Hill to forget about her diagnosis for a day. It has also worked as her tool to spread awareness for DIPG.
And best of all, basketball has allowed Lauren Hill to smile.
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