The Mount St. Joseph's women's basketball team held its postseason banquet in a Cincinnati hospital room warmed by Lauren Hill's smile.
The 19-year-old freshman made it through a full season while raising more than $1.3 million for research into the type of brain tumor that will likely end her life. She's occasionally hospitalized for treatment now. But she still holds on to each day as tightly as she can. And she urges others to appreciate their time together.
"That's truly Lauren," coach Dan Benjamin said in an interview. "That's the message she's been saying forever. She's just thankful God gave her that opportunity and that role. Because she's the one that could handle it. And she's done it so gracefully.
College player fights tumor for moment on court
"Even at the banquet, she comes in her wheelchair and she's all smiles. And that's truly amazing. I don't know what her pain level is or how much suffering she's going through. But the girl smiles every time she gets a chance."
Hill was diagnosed with an inoperable brain tumor during her senior year of high school. She decided to go ahead and attend college and play for the Division III school. The NCAA granted permission to move up the school's opening game because of her worsening condition. She made a layup for the first basket in a game at Xavier University's 10,000-seat arena.
Hill was able to play in four games early in the season, making five layups. As her condition worsened, she became an honorary coach, attending games when possible. She tires easily now and needs to use a wheelchair often.
The team had planned to have its annual end-of-the-season banquet on Feb. 22. The date matches Hill's uniform number. But the final game got pushed back because of the weather. Hill was getting treated at Cincinnati Children's Hospital.
So the team decided to take the banquet to the hospital, using a meeting room. Instead of having a big meal and awards, the players got sandwiches and spent time together.
"We were going to get something to eat, show up, talk about the season and celebrate being with each other," Benjamin said.
The team wore special gray jerseys for the first game at Xavier's arena. The NCAA prohibits schools from giving gifts to players, so they bought them for $22, another way to support Hill's fundraising for cancer research. Hill signed each of the jerseys at the banquet.
Doctors didn't expect Hill to live this long with the tumor, which folds around parts of her brain.
"The first diagnosis was December, around Christmas time, which is why I went ahead and tried to get the first game moved up," Benjamin said. "But that's Lauren. Lauren's not going to let it beat her, she's going to keep fighting.
"Everybody thought she'd be this small, tiny voice instead of this big lion roar. She's done a great job with that. And the money she's raised: Everybody thought she'd get some money, but $1.3 million is amazing."
In a recent interview with WKRC-TV, Hill said, "Life is precious. ... Every moment you get with someone is a moment that's blessed, really blessed."
Critical thinking challenge: How did Lauren continue to participate on her team, without playing?