NEW YORK -- Steve Lavin had been away from his team for just more than a month. He decided to return to the bench about 3½ 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 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 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 you 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 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 victory.
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 victory.
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.
"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.
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 3½ 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 2002.