St. John’s 78, Lehigh 73
Steve Lavin had been away from his team for just more than a
month. He decided to return to the bench about 31/2 hours before
St. John’s played its second game of the season.
God’sgift Achiuwa had 21 points on a perfect shooting night and
added eight rebounds as St. John’s rallied from a 14-point
second-half deficit for a 78-73 victory over Lehigh on Wednesday
night to give Lavin a win in his return from prostate cancer
“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 that logic
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 you to
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 were down 60-46 with 11:09 to play, then turned on
the defensive intensity in holding the Mountain Hawks scoreless for
almost 6 minutes to get back in the game. St. John’s kept it up
over the final minutes to take control and give Lavin the
Lavin sat between assistant Rico Hines and special adviser Gene
Keady, who gave him his first collegiate coaching job, on the bench
and was his usual animated self, exhorting players, badgering
referees and often just standing with his rolled-up program in
hand. In the second half, when the Red Storm made their run, Lavin
went into a defensive stance as his team tried to get Lehigh to
turn the ball over against the full-court pressure.
“I said to Rico and Coach Keady that nothing comes easy,” Lavin
said, smiling. “I was reminded of the rigors, the demand, the
challenges of coaching. I said, ‘Why does it have to be so
difficult?’ It was kind of rhetorical and I wasn’t expecting a
response but it was like therapy with them at my sides.
“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.”
The former UCLA coach was wearing what has become his coaching
uniform since last season, a black sports jacket with a white
shirt, no tie and white sneakers. The rest of the staff was wearing
the same thing, as it did during Lavin’s absence.
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
Moe Harkless and 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
“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.
“It was a hard-fought game. Give credit to St. John’s for a
young team to really be able to maintain their poise down the
stretch,” Lehigh coach Brett Reed said. “We made shots early but we
couldn’t match them down the stretch and that gave them
opportunities late in the game.”
St. John’s took advantage of Lehigh going cold from the field –
both inside and out – to get within 60-58 on a rebound basket by
Harkless with 5:50 to go. Holden Greiner hit a turnaround 23
seconds later, Lehigh’s first points in almost 6 minutes. Harkless
hit a 3 – the Red Storm’s second of the game in nine attempts – to
tie the game at 64 with 3:40 to go.
Gabe Knutson’s three-point play on a rebound basket gave the
Mountain Hawks the lead back, but Lindsey and Sir’Dominic Pointer
hit drives and St. John’s had its first lead since 2-0.
The Red Storm took the lead for good at 70-69 on a basket by
Achiuwa, who had a perfect shooting night, making six field goals
and nine free throws.
“I got excited yesterday when I saw Coach at practice and I gave
him a big hug,” Achiuwa said. “He never told us he was coming back.
I am really, really happy to have our coach back.”
The Red Storm (2-0) will face No. 16 Arizona in the semifinals
of the 2K Sports Classic benefiting Coaches vs. Cancer at Madison
Square Garden on Nov. 17. Lehigh goes to Liberty, Va., for three
games from Nov. 18-20.
The Mountain Hawks (0-1) hit their first five shots from the
field – all 3-pointers – in taking a 15-9 lead. They only hit one
more 3 in eight attempts the rest of the half but their patience
had them up by as many as 16 points, the last time at 36-20 on two
free throws by McCollum with 5:35 left.
The Red Storm managed to get within 40-33 on two free throws by
Achiuwa with 1:32 left but Jordan Hamilton hit the Mountain Hawks’
only field goal of the final 31/2 minutes, a 3-pointer with 3
seconds left that made it 43-33.
St. John’s shot 57.9 percent from the field (11 of 19) but was
down 10 points, mostly because of Lehigh’s early shooting from
beyond the arc, patience and offensive rebounds – the Mountain
Hawks had six in outrebounding St. John’s 13-10.
St. John’s is one of the least-experienced teams in the country,
with just one player back from last season’s squad that went 21-12
and played in the NCAA tournament for the first time since