Lauren Hill fulfills college basketball dream while inspiring others

It took just 17 seconds for Lauren Hill to realize a dream 19 years in the making.

The 5-foot-11 freshman wing for the Mount St. Joseph’s women’s basketball team scored her first career basket in the opening seconds of the Lions’ 66-55 victory over Hiram College on Sunday.

VIEW PHOTOS FROM THE GAME

Wearing her now-famous No. 22, she banked home a picture-perfect shot with her left hand after making a swooping pivot move from the low post.

"I don't know what to say. This game was amazing and it was amazing in every way. It's just a dream come true to play on the college level," Hill said about her first start at MSJ. "It was great to just be able to put my foot down and feel the crowd through the vibrations in the floor boards and I just wanted to play.

Lauren Hill before her first college basketball game

"I just love it so much. I love basketball."

Watch the play and her team's reaction in the player above.

The moves she performed Sunday were ones she'd done thousands of times in her family’s driveway in Greendale, Indiana and during practices at Lawrenceburg High School where she went to school.

But the first of the two layups she made Sunday was different than those in the past. A whole lot different.

Hill found out shortly after her 18th birthday in October 2013 that she has diffuse intrinsic pontine glioma, or DIPG, an inoperable form of brain cancer. There’s no known cure for the disease and thus far has proven to be 100 percent fatal.

She learned the diagnosis just 49 days after committing to play ball for Mount St. Joe’s in Delhi Township. The cancer has continued to attack her body, leaving her sensitive to light and loud noises. It’s also affected some of her ability to move and made it difficult to shoot with her right hand.

“It’s really kind of sad when I can’t play and have to sit on the bench. But even when I can’t play, I’m going to be there supporting my team because they’re hear to support me every day," Hill said.

That shortcoming didn’t stop her though. She just wears protective sunglasses and ear plugs, and oh yeah, learned to shoot with her left hand.

Lauren Hill watches from the bench

“Both baskets were good. The first basket was awesome and I was happy I made it (with my left hand) on my first try," Hill candidly admitted. "The second basket was even more awesome because I made it with my right hand, which is the hand I’ve been having difficulties with. And I was strong enough to get it up there. My second shot was just as sweet."

With the outcome no longer in question, the crowd called out in unison "We want Lauren" until coach Dan Benjamin had no choice but to put his superstar, his "rock" back in the game.

"I looked up at the score and I saw us up seven, and I kept praying we could get a few more buckets... and I told my assistant... I said get Lauren and get Brooke (Mosler) ready, we're going to put them back in," Benjamin said after his first game as coach. "Obviously when the fans started chanting her name there was no doubt were putting her back in."

When she made the first shot of her career, the 10,250 people at the sold-out Cintas Center clapped and cheered, and more than likely more than a handful of them needed to dry their eyes.

Hill let a few of her own tears fall onto the hardwood basketball court she loves.

“Thank you guys so much for being here and supporting me and (the fight against) pediatric brain cancer. Today has been the best day I’ve ever had,” the teenager said moments after scoring her first points as a college basketball player. They stopped the game and awarded her a game ball.

“I don’t know what to say, just thank you,” she continued.

Hill also gave thanks and praise to those who've helped her over the past few months and continue to lift up her during her "bad days." Without them, Sunday wouldn't have been possible.

"It's amazing. Having everybody here to support me is amazing," she said as her parents, Brent and Lisa Hill, sat beside her during her postgame press conference.

“I’m just going to celebrate with my family. I’m going to bask in it, I guess, because I know you guys are proud of me,” she added. “That’s what, you know, what every kid can hope for, to make their parents proud."

Fans cheer on Lauren Hill during her first college basketball game

Sunday’s game at the Cintas Center had been billed as "One Last Game" because doctors have told Hill she won't make it to Christmas. The NCAA gave permission to advance the game from Nov. 15 because of fears she might be too sick to play then.

But don't tell Hill this has to be her last game.

“It’s not (my last game). Don’t we have a next game next week?” she asked during the press conference. “Two weeks from now. I don’t want this to be my last game and I don’t plan on it being my last game. Even if I can’t play at that time I still plan to be there to support them. I’m going to be there for them."

The support for Hill wasn't limited to applause, however.

There were in-person meetings with people such as WNBA superstar Elena Delle Donne to messages from fellow basketball players to a tribute from members of the Texas A&M women's basketball team who plan to wear specialized No. 22 Lauren Hill jerseys in one of their exhibition games.

Several college basketball teams from across the region also sent in footage of them performing the “Layup For Lauren Challenge." Those taking the challenge spin around five times and then try to make a layup with their non-dominant hand the way that Hill does.

The cancer has taken its toll on Hill's basketball skills, robbing her strength and causing dizziness, sickness and severe headaches. Because of her tumor, she has to shoot with her left hand instead of her right. She can't turn her head side-to-side because it makes her dizzy, so she has to move her entire upper body.

Layup for Lauren is similar to the viral ALS ice bucket challenge in that those who complete it are asked to ask other people to take part and/or raise money for a cause. In this case it’s making a donation to the charity The Cure Starts Now, which aims to combat pediatric cancers like the one that’s killing Hill.

Hill has made it her mission to raise not only money but awareness about DIPG, a little-known disease that typically affects children between the ages of 4 and 9. Because it attacks the brainstem it can't be operated on and traditional chemotherapy treatments can't be performed.

Mount St. Joseph players celebrate after Lauren Hill's first basket 

"When I met Lauren last June, she really wanted to be that voice for children who couldn't speak for themselves (about what they were experiencing)," said Brooke Desserich, a representative for The Cure Starts Now. Her oldest daughter died after a battle with DIPG. "Lauren felt a weight of responsibility to go out and speak for these kids. Her drive, her determination is amazing."

Only between 150 and 200 people are diagnosed with the DIPG in the United States every year so money and research have lingered behind other diseases. However doctors call it a "home run disease" because they believe finding treatments for it can help find a cure for cancer, according to Mariko D. DeWire, Hill's physician and a neuro-oncologist at Cincinnati Children's Hospital Medical Center.

Related: Children's Hospital doctor explains why your help is needed to find a cure for DIPG.

DeWire said there have been some "breakthroughs" in the study of DIPG but there's a long way to go. Through Hill's hope, the valuable information she can provide and the financial donations she's able bring in, there's hope more effective treatments will exist in the not-too-distant future.

Even though Hill knows it might be too late for her, she wants to do what she can to help others.

"When I was diagnosed I remember kind of feeling lonely because nobody understood, nobody truly understood. And now that more people know about this story... I'm just so happy that people know about it now and maybe we can get some research going and hopefully find that home-run cure for cancer, she said.

"I'm probably not going to be around to see it, but it's going to help a lot of people."

As the details of Hill's story have spread, she's developed special bonds with those going through similar situations. One of the relationships forged is between Hill and Bengals defensive tackle Devon Still.

Devon Still with a "Lauren Strong" message

Still’s 4-year-old daughter Leah is fighting a different form of pediatric cancer called stage 4 neuroblastoma. He usually wears the message “‪Leah Strong” across his face. But with his daughter's blessing, he decided to dedicate his game against the Jaguars to Hill.

Mount St. Joe’s coach Dan Benjamin read the tweet to Hill before the game.

The day of surprises continued with a halftime celebration that involved legendary basketball coach Pat Summitt. The Basketball Hall of Hamer, who herself is battling Alzheimer's disease, was on hand to award Hill the Pat Summitt award for courage from the United States Basketball Writers Association.

The award is typically given at the women's Division I Final Four but the organization made an exception in Hill's case.

"Everything was just amazing and everything that's happened to has been amazing. And I just feel so blessed that this is all happening," Hill said. "This has been a really good day."

Sunday was even better for cancer research. The game at Cintas Center alone raised more than $40,000 for cancer research.

In fact, every dribble Hill performs, layup she makes and interview she does is raising hundreds, thousands of dollars for research to help defeat the cancer doctors believe will ultimately take her life.

Even more money is going to show up cancer research facilities when she auctions off the No. 22 jerseys she received from teams across the country. As of Sunday afternoon the total number of uniforms was at 250.

"All the support for me and this cause is amazing. And I really hope this isn't the end of the support," she said. "I don't want it to be the end – I want people to keep supporting this so we can find a cure for cancer."

Here's how to help Lauren's cause:

> Donate to The Cure Starts Now Foundation . It was created specifically to raise needed research money to find a cure for DIPG.

> Sign up for Lauren's challenge or make a donation at Layup4Lauren.org.

> Participate in an online auction for hundreds of No. 22 jerseys that NCAA schools have donated in Lauren's honor. Lauren is autographing the jerseys. The auction runs until Nov. 16. Go here to bid and see what's available.

> Tweet or read more of the messages for her at #Layup4Lauren and #1More4Lauren

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