DETROIT – When Michigan State was fighting to stay afloat despite a succession of injuries to key players, Lacey Holsworth was there.
When the team rebounded to win the Big Ten tournament, the 8-year-old from St. Johns, Mich., was there.
And as the cold-shooting Spartans bowed out of the NCAA tournament at the hands of eventual champion Connecticut one win short of the Final Four, she was there.
Now, Lacey is gone.
The little girl affectionately known as Princess Lacey finally succumbed to the cancer that she battled since 2011. Her father, Matt Holsworth, said Lacey died at their home late Tuesday with her mommy and daddy holding her in their arms.
Lacey met Michigan State star Adreian Payne during one of her hospital stays, and their friendship quickly blossomed. The little girl became known to legions of basketball fans, cheering on Payne and the Spartans on Twitter as they became a popular pick to win it all this season.
Words can’t express how much I already miss Lacey, Payne said in a statement released by the school. She is my sister, and will always be a part of my life. She taught me how to fight through everything with a smile on my face even when things were going wrong. I’m a better man because of her.
When it was Payne’s turn to be honored during Senior Night, the 6-foot-10 center scooped up Lacey and carried her around the court. He did it again in Indianapolis after Michigan State won the Big Ten tournament, and the little girl with the blond wig was there when he took part in a recent slam-dunk competition.
And there she was at the Michigan State basketball banquet last month, standing next to coach Tom Izzo, who put his arm around her as he addressed the hundreds of players, families and others in attendance.
His message: What Lacey was going through put his team’s injury woes in perspective.
I’ve learned they’re minor injuries when you look at life, said an emotional Izzo, who paused to gather himself. One of the greatest things I’ve done in my 30 years here was seeing Payne interact with Lacey during a hospital visit.
Watching that moment, I could never teach that. I could never coach that. I learned from him, said Izzo, who said Lacey became the team’s inspiration.
Former Detroit coach and longtime ESPN announcer Dick Vitale pledged to raise $250,000 toward cancer research over the next month and present a check in that amount in Lacey’s memory during his annual gala to benefit The V Foundation for cancer research on May 16 in Sarasota, Fla.
I talked to Matt (Holsworth) this morning. I promise you that we are not going to let her die in vain, said Vitale, who was thrilled to have Lacey attend his gala last year.
I was just crushed when he found out about Lacey’s death Wednesday morning, Vitale said.
In a statement, Izzo said: Princess Lacey has taught us all an incredible lesson about love, strength and toughness. We can all learn from her on how to handle adversity with class and dignity. ... At just eight years old, she has given us all a lifetime of memories.