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. “They should take Lacey’s picture and when they define courage it should have her photo right next to it.”
Lacey watched Michigan State’s NCAA tournament run from the stands. After Payne scored a career-high 41 points to help Michigan State beat Delaware in its first tournament game, Payne talked as much about what his performance meant to Lacey as it did to the Spartans.
“It’s like having a family member who’s really sick,” he said. “The only thing you can do is play basketball. You can’t be there with them. Just knowing that when I play well, it makes her happy. It feels like I’m doing something, in a way, to make her feel better.”
Back pain while dancing in 2011 led to the discovery of a football-sized tumor that had engulfed her kidney. After another tumor wrapped around her spine, her father had to carry her into a hospital on Dec. 28, 2011. She lost feeling below her belly button and couldn’t walk on her own for several months, a long stretch that included the first of many visits from Payne.
Still, Lacey almost always was smiling when she was seen in public.
“She loved unconditionally and without hesitation,” said Matt Holsworth, who asked that others continue her legacy by doing the same.
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.”
Lacey is survived by her parents, Matt and Heather Holsworth, and three brothers: Will, Mitchell and Luke. A memorial service is planned for April 17 at Breslin Center, Michigan State’s arena in East Lansing.