NEW YORK, NY - MARCH 10: head coach Steve Lavin of the St. John's Red Storm reacts from the bench near the end of the first half against the Syracuse Orange during the quarterfinals of the 2011 Big East Men's Basketball Tournament presented by American Eagle Outfitters at Madison Square Garden on March 10, 2011 in New York City. (Photo by Chris Trotman/Getty Images)
The "Lavinwood" section of Carnesecca Arena had their letters ready on Wednesday just in case St. John's Red Storm head coach Steve Lavin returned to the sidelines. On Nov. 8, Lavin was at practice for the first time since undergoing surgery for prostate cancer. As there was no timetable given for his return to the sidelines, I was surprised to see him walk out onto the court for the game last night. He got a standing ovation from the home crowd.
Lehigh must have been doomed at that point right? Nope. The Mountain Hawks brought an experienced team with four starters and a legitimate giant killer in guard CJ McCollum. He and his teammates started out red hot from 3 point range. At one point in the first half McCollum had 14 points on 4-7 shooting and Lehigh held a 34-18 lead. This is why Lavin wanted to be on the court earlier than he anticipated (Sunday against UMBC). His young team needed him. They had rallied from a seven point hole against William & Mary at halftime in the first game, but this one could get out of hand before the end of the first half.
It didn't. St. John's made a run and cut the lead to 40-33. The Red Storm youth showed during the first half. There were too many turnovers and they were a little too aggressive with their pressure. It cost them as the half was ending with another Lehigh 3 pointer which made the deficit 10 at halftime.
It took time in the second half (the Lehigh lead ballooned to 14 points) before St. John's made their move and took over the game with their pressure. Lehigh struggled to make their shots but held a 60-46 lead with 11:09 to go. With 3:42 to go, the game was tied at 64. Less than two minutes later, the Red Storm led 70-69 and never looked back en route to a 78-73 win.
Lehigh had dominated the glass as William & Mary had done. The Mountain Hawks forced 14 turnovers while limiting St. John's to 7 assists. What they had not done is continue to make their 3 pointers. After a 6-13 first half, they were held to 2-13 in the second half. The Mountain Hawks put St. John's on the free throw line for 44 attempts. Had the Red Storm shot 44% from the line as they did against the Tribe, Lehigh could have won. St. John's shot 68.2% instead, led by the perfect night of God`sgift Achiuwa. He went 6-6 from the field and 9-9 from the free throw line for 21 points to lead all scorers. For the second game in a row, Achiuwa, Maurice Harkless, Nurideen Lindsey and D`Angelo Harrison scored in double figures for St. John's. McCollum finished the game with 19 points on just 6-17 shooting. Gabe Knutson was the most effective player for Lehigh with 16 points on 6-9 shooting and five offensive rebounds.
Rebounding remains a problem for St. John's as does free throw shooting unless Achiuwa gets to take them all (he's 14-16 on the young season, the rest of the team is 28-53). This St. John's team will be fun to watch grow this season but I wonder how long they can keep up their relentless pressure and comeback wins as the schedule moves toward Big East conference play.