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CINCINNATI – A clock above the court reminds everyone that it's only 5:58 a.m. Fifteen slow-moving women's basketball players at Division III Mount St. Joseph form a circle near one of the baskets and stretch quietly.
Coach Dan Benjamin walks briskly around the court, sipping a Mountain Dew for a little caffeine. He has the two-hour practice mapped out, including a special play he's installing for the Lions' sold-out season opener. A black whistle dangles in front of his gray "Play for 22" T-shirt.
No. 22 would be freshman Lauren Hill.
She's moving slowly today. There are days when the inoperable tumor squeezing her brain also saps her energy and robs her of coordination. She finally comes out onto the court carrying a water bottle and her teammates call out to her in encouragement: "Hey Lauren!"
Given how she's feeling, it would be easy to skip the practice. But since her diagnosis a year ago, she has made sure no opportunity gets wasted.
"That's kind of how I look at it," Hill said, resting in a folding chair after practice Thursday. "I'm spreading awareness and also teaching people how to live in the moment because the next moment's not promised. Anything can happen at any given moment. What matters is right now."
Acknowledging the urgency, the NCAA made a special exception to move up Mount St. Joseph's opener against Hiram College to Nov. 2, despite its rules that require seasons to start later in November. The scheduling change gives Hill a better shot to get on the court — the only chance she may get before the growing tumor that hinders her play also claims her life.
After the move, Xavier University offered its 10,000-seat arena so more people could attend. The game sold out faster than a Cleveland Cavaliers exhibition earlier this month.
College basketball players and sports teams from around the country are signing No. 22 jerseys and sending them to Lauren for support. The United States Basketball Writers Association has voted her for the Pat Summitt most courageous award, which is usually given out at the Final Four.
"This is an amazing young lady who's made an impact on the world, more than I will ever do," said Benjamin, a coach for 25 years. "I wish everybody could meet her."
Hill played basketball and soccer in nearby Lawrenceburg, Indiana. On her 18th birthday last October, she decided to commit to play basketball at The Mount, as it's known locally. A few weeks later, she started feeling bad. Tests found the cancerous tumor growing throughout her brain. Surgery wasn't an option. Six weeks of radiation, an experimental drug and two months of chemotherapy didn't help much. Doctors estimated she had a year to live.
"I try not to — try really hard not to — but it's hard to not think about down the road," she said.
While she prepares to play, she does as much as she can each day to raise awareness about pediatric cancer, hoping donations might fund research that gives others a chance of beating the disease.
A lot of people are going out of their way to get to know the ponytailed player who is showing everyone — with each deliberate dribble, left-handed shot and each time she just shows up — what it means to live each day fully.
NCAA President Mark Emmert called to offer encouragement. The school's president, Tony Aretz, stopped by with his wife to watch her practice and chat with Hill and her mom.
Cincinnati Bengals defensive lineman Devon Still stopped in unexpectedly this week. Still's 4-year-old daughter, Leah, has cancer, and he has worked with the NFL team to raise more than $1 million for pediatric cancer treatment.
"It's like she's beyond her years," Still said. "She understands her purpose. In her 19 years of being here on Earth, she's done a lot more than a lot of older people have done."
Hill's parents and two younger siblings are trying to pack as much as they can into however many weeks she has left.
"You try not to concentrate on it too much because you can get caught up in the grief of the sheer fact that you're probably going to lose your child," her mother, Lisa Hill said. "But if I grieve and get depressed and curl up into a ball, I rob myself and her of today. Why?
"We've got today. I can spend today with her doing everything we want to do — just chit-chatting, listening to music, going shopping, whatever she wants to do. If I didn't get out of bed, I'd miss out on all those things."
Although she's right-handed, Lauren has to shoot with her left because the tumor is affecting her right side more severely. She gets dizzy if she moves her head side-to-side, so she has to move her upper body instead. Her balance is a little off. She'll be able to play only a few minutes at a time on Nov. 2.
Even with all of that, she refuses to think of it as her one and only game.
"She says, 'I hate that. If I can play one more game, I'm playing one more game,'" Lisa Hill said. "If she's upright and able, she'll still be out there."