Two teams of cancer survivors dubbed the Hardwood Heroes went head-to-head on the Final Four floor for a good cause on Friday.
The annual game, part of INFINITI’s partnership with Coaches vs. Cancer, featured two teams of seven — each of the players with amazing stories of survival and strength – coached by some of the biggest names in college basketball.
“My experience as a Hardwood Hero has given me hope, strength, confidence, and, above all, an outlet and a way for me to begin healing, a way for me to move forward,” Melissa Kovalesky, who was diagnosed with leukemia three years ago, tells PEOPLE. “I am eternally grateful. ”
The game took place at the University of Phoenix Stadium and $700,000 is expected to be raised for cancer research through a charity challenge put on by the coaches.
“All the participants have such unique and empowering stories. It’s an honor for us to work with these inspiring survivors to raise awareness on such an important initiative,” Allyson Witherspoon, INFINITI’S director of marketing communications and media, tells PEOPLE.
One team was led by former UCLA coach Jim Harrick and FOX Sports analyst Doug Gottlieb and the other squad was headed by former University of Wisconsin-Madison coach Bo Ryan and former college basketball star Miles Simon.
Kovalesky, a mother of two, says the experience has been completely life changing.
“Our Coach, Bo Ryan once said, ‘You measure a person by what it takes to discourage them,’ ” she says. “And in this case, given that way of thinking, the Hardwood Heroes are immeasurable: Our strength, courage, and determination to defy all odds are just too great to measure.”
“These Hardwood Heroes are my teammates … my friends, and above that, they truly are heroes. They are brave, strong, confident, life-loving, grateful, hilarious, giving, uplifting, supportive, and they are warriors in every sense of the word. Every single one of them have made a huge impact in my life.”