Steve Lavin on bench for St. John's

NEW YORK -- St. John's men's basketball coach Steve Lavin made a dramatic return to the bench on Wednesday night.

Just a few minutes before the Red Storm tipped off their second game of the season against Lehigh, in the 2K Sports Classic benefiting Coaches vs. Cancer, Lavin -- away from the team for more than a month after undergoing prostate cancer surgery Oct. 6 -- walked onto the floor at Carnesecca Arena, to the surprise of everyone in attendance.

Those fans who were already in the stands gave Lavin a huge round of applause. Lavin waved and pumped his fist in the air in response.

The cheers grew louder when Lavin was introduced after the starting lineups, with the student sections chanting, "We love Lavin! We love Lavin!"

St. John's, which trailed by as many 16 points, came back to win 78-73, improving its record to 2-0.

"Our fans were great tonight," Lavin said. "And naturally once you've been away for a period of time and you're able to come back home and join forces with your basketball family, it's special -- it's a special night."

Lavin missed the team's regular season opener on Monday night, a 74-59 win over William & Mary. Assistant coach Mike Dunlap has run the team in Lavin's absence.

It was Dunlap who convinced Lavin to coach the team on Wednesday, after Lavin attended his first practice of the season on Tuesday. Lavin was not planning to make his return until the Red Storm's next game, on Sunday against UMBC.

"Coach Dunlap's kind of the one who nudged me to come back one game earlier than I was originally thinking," Lavin said. "I trust his instincts and his feel -- he's got a good pulse on the team, and he's done an outstanding job along with the rest of our staff."

Dunlap knew he "had a job to do" in order to get Lavin to the game.

"I thought after seeing him in practice yesterday -- his energy level and how our players responded to the pick-me-up -- it was the perfect time," said Dunlap. "He had great energy, he was really insightful, and it just felt really good for everybody."

Dunlap and Lavin went back and forth via text message throughout the day on Wednesday, and Lavin finally decided that he was coming around 3:30 p.m. He arrived at Carnesecca Arena at about 6, an hour before tip-off, and surprised the players in their pregame meeting room.

"We were waiting for Coach Dunlap, and all of a sudden Coach Lavin walks in and everybody just started to get excited and happy and everything," said freshman forward Moe Harkless. "It's a great feeling to have our coach back."

Lavin said his recovery from the surgery has been a gradual process.

"The first stage is getting to a period where you don't have the pain and discomfort," said Lavin. "And then the next phase is trying to build your stamina and energy levels closer to full capacity.

"There's quantum leaps in the recuperation or recovery from the first to the second to the third and fourth week. I'm a little bit over a month now. There were big jumps in the last two weeks, and for me that was when I started to sense that I was going to return at some point either this week or next."

Lavin was very happy to get a victory in his return.

"It was a very challenging game -- probably as challenging a game as I've coached in my career," Lavin said. "It didn't ever really feel normal. I just felt relief when it looked like we would pull out a win."

Kieran Darcy is a staff writer for ESPNNewYork.com. Information from The Associated Press was used in this report.