NEW YORK -- Steve Lavin is back, and his young team is off to a promising start.
After missing almost all of last season while recovering from prostate cancer, Lavin officially made his return to the sideline Tuesday afternoon. And St. John's Red Storm won its regular-season opener against Detroit, 77-74 at Carnesecca Arena.
In his postgame news conference, Lavin was asked how he felt about his comeback. "I think so much of the way I feel is a result of your team and their energy, and feeding off of that synergy," Lavin said. "Similar to a parent -- if your children are lined in the right way and they seem well adjusted and they're contributing in a meaningful way, then you feel better as a parent. And as a coach, I feel good because this team found a way to get a gritty W."
It didn't look like that was going to happen in the first half after Detroit broke open a tie game with a 9-0 run and led 37-29 at intermission. St. John's still trailed 60-53 with under nine minutes remaining, when the Red Storm took over with a 14-2 run of their own to wrest control of the game.
Somewhat surprisingly, a St. John's team with three sophomores and two freshmen in the starting lineup was the poised group down the stretch. Detroit -- a team that made the NCAA tournament last season, with two seniors, two juniors and a sophomore in its starting five -- looked rattled, taking bad shots and turning the ball over.
"I think we showed a good, resilient spirit," Lavin said. "They could have easily gone quietly into the night -- when a veteran team like that gets a lead, you're curious how your team is gonna handle discouragement in the timeouts and on the floor and in their approach. And they found a way to stay together as a group and kind of solve some problems."
Sophomore guard D'Angelo Harrison, who led the team in scoring as a freshman (16.8 ppg), scored a game-high 22 points -- 15 of them coming in the second half, and 11 in the final eight minutes and change, when the Red Storm made their move. Harrison did not start -- Lavin benched Harrison for the team's second exhibition game last week, as punishment for failing to control his emotions on the floor. But Lavin sent Harrison to the scorer's table less than three minutes into the game, and he played 29 minutes.
"I think I did a good job, and I'm just gonna keep taking steps forward and just go from here," Harrison said.
"Across the board, really impressed," said Lavin, of Harrison. "From the time we booted him out of practice and sat him, took the starting spot away and then didn't play him the next game, and didn't start today, he's been outstanding."
Harrison had plenty of help. Fellow sophomore Phil Greene, unveiling an improved outside shot, scored a career-high 20 points, making 7-of-12 attempts from the field. And sophomore swingman Amir Garrett chipped in 15 points and 11 rebounds.
But the player that had the fans and media buzzing after the game was Chris Obekpa -- one of three freshmen who made their St. John's debuts on Tuesday. Obekpa arrived in Queens with a reputation as a shot-blocker, and he didn't waste any time proving it. Obekpa set a school record in his very first game with eight blocked shots, breaking the previous mark of seven by Robert Werdann in 1989.
"In my experience as a coach and a broadcaster, he's unique to anyone I've seen," Lavin said. "Obekpa is 6-8, but it's the length, and the timing. There's a, as I call, a central intelligence in motion that's being used. Because he doesn't pick up fouls."
"It's a gift," said the soft-spoken Obekpa, a native of Nigeria, who played his high school ball at Our Savior New American School on Long Island.
Lavin and his team were boarding a flight to South Carolina shortly after Tuesday's game -- they'll next participate in the Charleston Classic, starting with a game against the host school, College of Charleston, on Thursday.
There are still plenty of things for Lavin to worry about. He is still waiting to hear back from the NCAA on the eligibility of forward Orlando Sanchez and guard Marco Bourgault, a pair of junior college transfers. Lavin used just seven players on Tuesday -- and they were all freshmen and sophomores. With or without the pair of juco players, there will be growing pains.
But one thing Lavin doesn't seem worried about anymore is his health -- a far cry from this time one year ago.
"I think I'm good. I stick with the oatmeal," Lavin said, smiling, when asked about coaching three games in four days in Charleston. "Not a concern. I felt good about my energy, and I'm trying to stay in my routines, and still do some walking and some stretching, and get a little bit of cardio in when I can between practices and games."
For Lavin, and the St. John's basketball program, that is the best news of all.