Connecticut may be the "home team" for the NCAA East Regional final against Michigan State this afternoon, buoyed by thousands of Huskies fans making the short commute to Madison Square Garden. But rest assured the Spartans and especially center Adreian Payne will be uplifted by their own special source of inspiration.
Lacey Holsworth, the beautiful 8-year-old cancer patient who developed an improbable friendship with the 6-10 basketball star, made it to New York with her parents to witness Payne's clutch plays in Friday night's win over Virginia that put Michigan State in the Elite Eight, and she will be at the Garden on Sunday hoping to cheer him on to the Final Four.
"I was talking to her right now," Payne said as his interview began. "They're out here in New York. They were at the game last night. It's just been great. When I get some spare time, maybe they'll come over to the hotel and I'll get to see them."
College athletics is full of stories about "family," but sometimes they surprise with unexpected twists that renew your faith in humanity. Something about Lacey's battle with a rare form of cancer called neuroblastoma touched Payne's soul when he first met her during a hospital visit two years ago.
At the time, a tumor in her abdomen had wrapped around Lacey's spine, paralyzing her. "I just really felt like I could help, especially with her parents," Payne said. "There wasn't too much I could do with her at that point because she was so sick. But my presence was enough. She really liked me being there.
"Her parents were going through so much. I just told them, if they wanted me to be there, they could call or text me. It grew from there. Lacey would text me and I would text her back. Just send little messages saying 'be strong.' It turned into more conversation. She said she enjoyed watching the games."
Perhaps Payne's compassion for Lacey and her family stems from his own loss. He was 13 when his mother died of an asthma attack, and his grandmother died when he was in college.
"That may have something to do with it," Payne said. "I'm always willing to help, and I always want to see kids do well. The story behind Lacey is that she was a dancer. It was taken from her by cancer. She wasn't able to walk or dance anymore. If basketball was taken away from me, how would I feel? I just wanted to help her get back strong so she can dance and smile and do something she loves."
Aggressive chemotherapy enabled Lacey to walk again. But last November, the cancer returned, affecting her jaw and neck. She's battling every day, and Payne has been there for her to the point that he's virtually a member of the Holsworth family.
That's a serious responsibility, but Payne welcomed it. She presented him roses on senior night, and when Michigan State won the Big Ten Tournament, Payne carried Lacey, wearing her platinum blonde wig, up the ladder to help cut down the net.
"She helps me in a lot of ways," Payne said. "Just being able to spend time with her and take my mind off basketball. My family is four hours away from Michigan, so having somebody I can talk to and spend time with or just color and do little things like that is great."
Payne and guard Keith Appling are the only four-year players who never have reached a Final Four under MSU coach Tom Izzo, and Payne said that pressure weighs heavily. "I pray about it every night," Payne said. "It's always on my mind. For me to have a chance and be this close, it's exciting."
You never know if the ball will bounce your way in life, which is why it's so important that Payne and Lacey can share their hopes Sunday at the Garden.