Xavier women's basketball head coach Brian Neal (right) sits alongside Lauren Hill's mother Lisa (center).
CINCINNATI — Lauren Hill’s mother and her coach got emotional when they walked into the arena where she made her first basket a little more than a year ago, reaching her cherished goal even as brain cancer was draining her of life.
The Mount St. Joseph freshman basketball player will be remembered over the weekend with a season-opening game and another push to raise money for pediatric cancer research.
Xavier University will host a Division III game on Saturday between Mount St. Joseph and Hiram College, the same teams that played one year ago at the Cintas Center. Hill made the first and last baskets, scoring with a left-handed layup while 10,250 fans cheered and cried.
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More than 3,000 fans are expected on Saturday for a doubleheader including a game between the Xavier women’s team and Evansville. It’ll be a challenging day for her mother, Lisa, who returned to the Cintas Center on Tuesday along with coach Dan Benjamin to promote the game.
"It’s hard," Lisa Hill said during an interview. "I try not to think about it too much. It’s kind of bittersweet, but it’s for a purpose."
Hill was diagnosed with inoperable brain tumor during her senior year of high school but decided to attend Mount St. Joseph and play basketball even though doctors gave her only a year to live. The NCAA allowed the schools to move up their opener because of her deteriorating condition, and the game was moved to Xavier so more people could attend.
Hill played in four games and scored 10 points before she was too weak to continue. She died in April, and her public memorial was held at the Cintas Center, with her casket placed over the spot where she scored the first basket. The Hiram team attended the memorial as well, and players from the two schools remain close.
Mount St. Joseph’s team visited Hiram during the season and brought gifts, with players exchanging phone numbers and keeping in touch. The teams will go out for dinner together on Friday night after their practices.
"It’s really sweet," Lisa Hill said. "I really don’t think they knew what they were getting into until they got here (for the game). There are a lot of life lessons tied in there that they took from that. It’s humbling that Lauren was able to touch them. It’s a genuine kind of bond."
One of Lauren Hill’s priorities in her final year was raising money for cancer research so others might have a better chance of beating the disease. Roughly $1.8 million has been raised in her name, with a goal of reaching $2.2 million — her jersey was No. 22 — by the end of the weekend.
There will be a telethon on Friday, and proceeds from the game will go toward cancer research. Five thousand Lauren Hill bobbleheads were made for the game, so the schools are hoping for at least that many fans.
Benjamin’s voice cracked as he talked about how his team’s return to the arena will be so emotional.
"The girls are pretty excited," he said. "I know the seniors are going to struggle a lot with everything they went through emotionally last year from the tipoff of the game to watching her fulfill a dream and letting us help her voice be loud and proud."