Lavin Returns for St. John’s Win
St. John’s head coach Steve Lavinhad been away from his team for just more than a month. He decided to return to the bench about three-and-a-half hours before St. John’s played its second game of the season.
Junior forward God’sgift Achiuwa scored 21 points on a perfect shooting night and added eight rebounds as St. John’s (2-0) rallied from a 14-point second-half deficit for a 78-73 victory over Lehigh (0-1) on Wednesday night to give Lavin a win in his return from prostate cancer surgery.
“It was inevitable I would return and the thinking was the sooner we begin that transition the better,” Lavin said. “It’s always a challenging dimension to transition back with your team coming off a health issue like I had. Since I was aiming for Sunday anyway, what’s the difference by three days? Around 3:30 p.m. that logic won out.”
Mike Dunlap, the assistant coach who was in charge of the program during Lavin’s absence, was the one who prodded his boss into the earlier return. Lavin made his first appearance at a practice on Tuesday.
“I thought after the energy level at practice and how the players responded it was the right time for a pick-me-up,” Dunlap said. “I thought it would be good for everybody. Steve and I texted back and forth all day and though we have elementary skills in that, we got the job done. I told him it was all set for him to come back.”
Lavin made a surprising and understated return, walking out to the court just minutes after the Red Storm came out for pregame warmups. The students behind both baskets erupted into cheers and started chanting, “We love Lavin!”
Then came the game.
The Red Storm was down 60-46 with 11:09 to play, then turned on the defensive intensity in holding the Mountain Hawks scoreless for almost six minutes to get back in the game. St. John’s kept it up over the final moments to take control and give Lavin the victory.
Lavin sat between assistant Rico Hines and special advisor Gene Keady, who gave him his first collegiate coaching job, on the bench. He was his usual animated self, exhorting players, badgering referees and often just standing with his rolled-up paper in hand. In the second half, when the Red Storm made its run,
Lavin went into a defensive stance as his team tried to get Lehigh to turn the ball over against the full-court pressure.
“It was a very challenging game, probably as challenging as I’ve coached in my career,” the 47-year-old Lavin said. “I felt relief when it looked like we would pull out the win. I can’t say I ever found my stride or felt it was smooth sailing, but that doesn’t happen often in coaching anyway.”
Lavin had surgery on Oct. 6 and Dunlap ran the team, including the Red Storm’s season-opening win over William & Mary on Monday night. That was a similar game to Wednesday, as the Red Storm fell behind by seven at halftime but went on to a 74-59 victory.
Freshman swingman Moe Harkless and junior floor general Nurideen Lindsey added 15 points each for the Red Storm, who trailed 43-33 at halftime against Lehigh. The players didn’t know their coach would be back until they convened for a final meeting before the game.
“Everyone got so excited in the huddle welcoming Coach back and we didn’t want him to come back to a loss,” Harkless said. “We didn’t want to lose period, but especially for him.”
Harkless, a member of the Red Storm’s highly touted recruiting class, had an answer to why the first two games followed the same script.
“We just didn’t come out ready and they hit shots and it was tough for us. That has something to do with our youth,” he said. “In the second half we showed maturity by fighting through the whole game and not giving up. If we learn to come out stronger, we’ll be OK this year.”
C.J. McCollum, the nation’s leading returning scorer with a 21.9 average, had 19 points on 6-of-17 shooting to lead Lehigh.
– Associated Press
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