CINCINNATI — In between making two layups that brought a packed arena to its feet, Lauren Hill spent much of this inspiring game sitting on the bench wearing sunglasses and headphones.
The bright gym and roar of the crowd are still special to Hill, an inoperable brain tumor, though, has made her extremely sensitive to sensations her teammates and opponents take for granted.
A freshman forward for Division III Mount St. Joseph’s, Hill made an uncontested left-handed layup for the opening basket of Sunday’s 66-55 victory against Hiram. Hill, 19, has just months to live because of the tumor, which affects her coordination, forcing the right-hander to shoot with her left hand.
She made the last shot of the game, too, returning with 26.5 seconds remaining to sink a layup right-handed for the game’s final basket.
“[Sunday] has been the best day I’ve ever had,” Hill said after receiving another award upon the game’s end.
Her shots brought standing ovations from a sellout crowd at Xavier’s 10,000-seat arena, among many emotional moments for Hill as she received love and support upon walking out for warmups. Her audience included former Tennessee women’s coach Pat Summitt and several WNBA players including Elena Della Donne, Tamika Catchings and Skylar Diggins.
Moved by the reactions — especially after receiving the U.S. Basketball Writers Association’s Pat Summitt most courageous award normally awarded at the Final Four — Hill said of the disease, “we’re gonna fight this.”
Hill’s determination to play while raising awareness about pediatric cancer has resulted in a fan base that goes far beyond the school located on the outskirts of Cincinnati.
A native of Lawrenceburg, Indiana, Hill’s fight has led to an outpouring of nationwide support. Teams and players have signed and sent No. 22 jerseys to Hill, including 15 from high schools that draped the backs of the Lions’ bench.
Hill started an online layup challenge that involves spinning around five times and shooting a layup with the non-dominant hand. Similar to this summer’s ALS Ice Bucket Challenge that became a social media phenomenon, the fundraising campaign #Layup4Lauren has drawn Cincinnati Bengals quarterback Andy Dalton and other athletes.
The Bengals showed a video of her layup during a timeout. Defensive tackle Devon Still –whose daughter, Leah, 4, is also being treated for cancer — wore Hill’s name on his eye black; Whitworth had the No. 22 on his gloves.
A series of videos were shown with teams meeting the challenge — with missed layups — and challenging others.
Fundraising by The Cure Starts Now Foundation totaled more than $40,000. The NCAA allowed the game to be moved up two weeks because of the urgency of Hill’s condition.
Lauren Hildebrand and daughter Allie, a Lawrenceburg High School sophomore, were among 3,000 from the town who got tickets, including the school’s pep band. Allie Hildebrand was Hill’s “little sister” during the player’s senior year and said handling her friend’s illness was difficult.
“You can’t cry in front of her,” Hildebrand said. “You don’t want to get upset in front of her. That makes her upset.”
Tears were conspicuously absent on an upbeat day that celebrated Hill’s perseverance.
Smiling upon entering the floor for warmups, Hill’s mood lifted the spirits of several children enduring various forms of cancer. That included Cynthia Towne, 11, who undergoes periodic chemotherapy for a less-aggressive form of cancer first diagnosed at 4.
The little girl from Cincinnati grinned widely as she gave Hill a specially-made headband sporting the word “Believe” with a yellow ribbon in the middle. Encouraged by recent diagnoses for her daughter, Katie Towne said Sunday was nonetheless bittersweet.
“I’m happy for the joy of her getting her wish coming true, not only for raising awareness but also for being able to play in this game,” Towne said. “But there’s also sadness knowing that how much awareness she brings right now, she won’t get to reap the benefits personally.
“That’s what’s amazing; she did this, knowing that,” Towne said.