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EAST LANSING, Mich. — "Love Like Lacey," read the sign outside Harrison Roadhouse, a well-known letter jumble that often tells the story of the day at Michigan State — whether it be a football win or a tuition increase.

On Thursday, it was 8-year-old Lacey Joy Elizabeth Holsworth of St. Johns, whose life was celebrated less than a mile from that sign, for an hour and 40 minutes in front of an estimated 2,500 people at the Breslin Center, nine days after cancer took it.

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Thursday's event had no known precedent and won't have a duplicate. It was unique, as was the story of Lacey and her courage and relationship with the Michigan State men's basketball team — a bona fide brother-sister closeness with senior forward Adreian Payne.

Those two hit the national TV circuit late in Michigan State's season, bringing the story of their 2-year-plus bond to millions. The outpouring was intense in the wake of Lacey's death, but Thursday was about celebrating the 8 years she did have.

It was about singing and dancing and bright colors and funny stories. At times, it was about as emotional and intimate as a college basketball arena could be.

And during the tear-jerking highlight of the evening, a recording of Heather Holsworth's tribute to her daughter, it was about learning what "Love Like Lacey" means.

"Without hesitation," Heather said, "and unconditionally."

TV crews from around the state were already lined up outside when the doors opened at 6 p.m. and people started streaming into Breslin. Some went to several hundred floor seats that were open behind four rows of family members — including parents Matt and Heather, brothers Will, Mitchell and Luke — and folks from Michigan State and Lansing's Sparrow Hospital.

On the screens above them played various videos of Lacey dancing to various songs — pop hits from Taylor Swift and Bruno Mars and Carly Rae Jepsen. Lacey moved and sang along to Stay Stay Stay and Just the Way You Are and Call Me Maybe.

And there was a video of her recital from last spring, a year after she was unable to walk while recovering from a tumor that wrapped around her abdomen. This year, she was going to dance to I Do Believe in Fairies from Peter Pan.

GALLERY: PHOTOS FROM LACEY'S MEMORIAL

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The program started at 6:30 with a piano solo of Let it Go from the Disney movie Frozen, performed by Aunt Julie Konieczny, Matt's sister. Then Heather's aunt Cynthia Hennessey gave a prayer.

Emcee Jeff Perryman, a federal agent with the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, took over and started by telling how he stopped in to see Lacey last year after hearing her story. He became close with the family and she fell in love with his dog, Ike.

He said of Matt and Heather: "This is a pure celebration of their daughter, who brought so much light to so many of us."

Then it was time for Heather's taped tribute. She said her "heart is screaming" as she mourns her daughter, who she called "a tomboy with a tutu."

"There's not enough pages in a book to do her justice," Heather said, and she told of her daughter's determination to beat her brothers in a race when she was 5 years old.

"The crazy thing?" Heather said. "She did it all in a skirt. And that's what Lacey was. A mixture of grace and grit."

She told of Lacey cutting loose in the family car on the way home from games, after resisting the urge to dance in front of Michigan State players.

"The Spartan princess. Sweet, adorable Lacey," Heather said. "Rocking out to 2 Chainz."

Heather closed by telling Lacey: "You are whole and you are healed. You are dancing among angels in the most stunning of palaces. ... My heart is lost without you. It will never be the same, but that's OK because I'm still learning from you. ... We can't wait to see you again. Save a dance for me. Love, Mommy."

Michigan State junior guard Travis Trice told the story of the Spartans' loss to North Carolina in December, after which he left a grim locker room to see smiling Lacey — about a month after finding out her cancer had returned. His misery was gone instantly.

"That was one of her blessings," said Trice, who also read two Biblical verses.

The team gathered together under a basket next to the stage and Payne performed a "silent dunk" to honor her. A Michigan State-produced video included words from the team to Lacey and pictures of her with Magic Johnson, Mateen Cleaves, Steve Smith and others.

Then it was time for the closer, a 43-minute video put together by Matt and Heather. It had baby pictures and vacation shots and jokes and heart-wrenching footage of Lacey undergoing treatment for cancer and learning to walk again. And it ended with Heather interviewing Lacey and asking her what she would tell other kids with cancer.

"Just keep believing in God and keep praying," Lacey said, "and just try to stay strong."

Joe Rexrode also writes for the Detroit Free Press, a Gannett affiliate

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