Basketball player dying of cancer sinks layup in inspirational college debut

The Dagger

They had practiced the play over and over for weeks in preparation for this moment, hoping to provide Lauren Hill an unforgettable basket to begin the most extraordinary game of any of their lives.

Sophomore guard Brystl Webb would set things in motion by feeding Taylor Brown on the left wing. Junior center Tara Dennis would then set a screen for Hill, freeing her to cut across the paint, catch a feed from Brown and attempt a layup.

It was the simplest of plays, yet so much had to go right for it go off without a hitch.

Hill, the Mount St. Joseph College forward with an inoperable brain tumor, first had to live long enough to play in Sunday's game against Hiram College, no small feat since doctors have told her they expect her not to make it through December. The 19-year-old freshman also had to summon the strength to make it up and down the floor despite the constant headaches and bouts of dizziness and nausea that have plagued her more frequently in recent weeks.

And as if that weren't enough, there was the little matter of Hill having to attempt the layup with her off hand because the right side of her body is too weak for her hoist it to the rim with her dominant arm. Hill has practiced shooting with her left hand for weeks, but she still missed just as many layups as she made in practice the past two weeks — and that was without a sellout crowd of 10,000 fans standing in her honor and tens of thousands more watching at home from their sofas on national TV.  

So it's easy to understand why so many inside the Cintas Center were so nervous before Sunday's tip-off and so elated only seconds later.

Webb fed Brown. Dennis set her screen to free Hill. And the 5-foot-11 redhead who has inspired so many the past few weeks easily banked in the layup she had been praying she'd get to shoot.

That Hiram College graciously accommodated Hill by playing purposely lax defense didn't detract from the moment whatsoever. The crowd chanted Hill's name, Mount St. Joseph players spilled off the bench to mob her and even the players on the Hiram bench cheered and waved towels in appreciation of what they had just witnessed. Referees also subsequently paused play and awarded Hill with the game ball.

You're probably already familiar with Hill's story because her courage has inspired massive interest nationwide since WKRC-TV in Cincinnati, Yahoo Sports and other outlets first shared it a few weeks ago.

Lauren Hill is mobbed after her basket (via @NCAA)
Lauren Hill is mobbed after her basket (via @NCAA)

Doctors discovered an inoperable tumor growing at the base of Hill's brain stem last year and diagnosed her with DIPG, a rare, inoperable pediatric brain tumor that kills 90 percent of victims within 18 months. Fearful that Hill wouldn't be strong enough to fulfill her goal of playing college basketball for the first time, the Indiana native's parents asked Mount St. Joseph to petition to have its Nov. 15 season opener moved up — a request the NCAA granted last month.

"I wish I could move the game up to this Sunday, I'll tell you that," Hill's mother told Yahoo Sports a few weeks ago. "[Lauren] could probably get away with it then, but in two weeks there is no guarantee what condition she's going to be in. I do know she will fight tooth and nail to keep herself together and get to that game because she wants to put on that jersey, be on that floor and fulfill her dream of playing on the college level."

As Hill's fight to play in one final basketball game received more attention nationwide, cards, letters and packages addressed to her began arriving at Mount St. Joseph every day. Xavier volunteered to host the game in its 10,290-seat arena, yet tickets sold out in less than 30 minutes when they went on sale for $5 apiece two weeks before the game.

Hill told Yahoo Sports last month her two primary remaining goals were to play in Sunday's game and to raise as much money and awareness as she could to fight DIPG and other pediatric cancers. She used her growing fame to accomplish that latter goal, doing as many interviews with local and national media outlets as she could in hopes of spreading her message.

A few weeks ago, Hill began urging other colleges to send No. 22 jerseys so Mount St. Joseph could auction them and donate the proceeds. Hill also launched a "Layup for Lauren" campaign challenging others to spin around five times and make a layup with their off hand, a task that mimicked what she endures because of her condition. Thousands have taken the challenge, and those who miss the layup are asked to donate $10 to cancer research.

In addition to all her fundraising efforts, Hill has continued to attend classes at Mount St. Joseph and practice with her teammates when her health allows it. Typically, she can't last more than a few minutes on the floor without needing a rest, but that was enough time for the team to practice Sunday's special play designed to get her one emotional basket. 

Though Hill seldom stopped smiling on the Mount St. Joseph bench, there were still signs Sunday that she isn't feeling well. Her face was swollen from the steroids she has been taking. She donned sunglasses and headphones on the bench to keep the bright light and loud music from making her headaches worse. And she didn't return to the floor after her game-opening layup until 25.6 seconds remained and her team had a comfortable nine-point lead.

Again, Mount St. Joseph ran the play designed for Hill. This time she missed the layup, but a teammate corralled the rebound and handed it to Hill, who didn't waste her second chance. She finished with four points and two of the most heartwarming baskets any player will score this season. 

In an in-game interview with Fox Sports moments after her layup on the opening possession, play-by-play announcer Brad Johansen asked her to describe her emotions.

Responded the 19-year-old who doctors give only weeks to live, "I've never felt so good in my entire life."

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Jeff Eisenberg is the editor of The Dagger on Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Email him at daggerblog@yahoo.com or follow him on Twitter!

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