- Kieran Darcy, ESPNNewYork.com
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NEW YORK -- Steve Lavin looked quite comfortable when he walked onto the floor a few minutes before tipoff Wednesday night -- despite the fact that it was his first home game as the St. John's head coach.
Lavin cradled a Starbucks coffee in his right hand and sipped it repeatedly as he took a seat on the St. John's bench, watching the opposing team, Columbia, wrap up its warm-ups.
Lavin likely had no idea how uncomfortable the next couple of hours would be.
The Lions of the Ivy League stunned the home crowd by taking a 39-35 halftime lead Wednesday night at Carnesecca Arena. But a spirited second-half comeback by the Red Storm gave Lavin his first win as their coach, as St. John's eventually prevailed 79-66.
The St. John's players presented Lavin with the game ball in the locker room after the game, as a keepsake.
"We really wanted to get this win for Coach Lav," senior forward Justin Burrell said.
The big concern for St. John's going into this game was fatigue; the team was less than 40 hours removed from wrapping up its season-opening loss to Saint Mary's, three time zones away. But the St. John's players appeared to have plenty of energy early, jumping out to a 24-12 lead.
Then Columbia outscored St. John's 27-11 the rest of the half, spearheaded by freshman shooting guard Dyami Starks, who came off the bench to drain five of his seven 3-point attempts in the half.
Lavin shouldered the blame after the game for his team blowing the big lead.
"I'll take the first-half performance responsibilty," Lavin said. "We had built a nice lead, had a lot of nice things going, and then I think I oversubstituted and we lost our rhythm.
"Not that there weren't things that we can't clean up, and we did address those," Lavin added. "Rebounding, and tagging their shooters so they had less open looks."
The Red Storm did indeed fix those issues in the second half. Outrebounded by nine in the first 20 minutes, they pulled down 10 more boards than the Lions in the second 20. They forced Columbia to shoot just 6-for-24 as a team the rest of the way. And they limited Starks to just one more shot attempt, which was blocked -- although Starks curiously played only six minutes after intermission.
D.J. Kennedy -- St. John's leading scorer last season, who looked sluggish in the season opener against Saint Mary's, taking only five shots -- was much more aggressive against Columbia, leading the way with 18 points on 7-of-13 shooting from the field.
"Coach just told me to be aggressive," Kennedy said. "Play my game, always have my eyes on the rim -- any open look, take advantage of it."
Other major contributors included senior forward Justin Brownlee (15 points) and freshman forward Dwayne Polee (10 points, nine boards). Malik Stith and Paris Horne also came up big off the bench, with 11 and eight points, respectively.
For Lavin, it was career win No. 146 as a head coach -- but it came seven years after win No. 145, in his final season at UCLA. It also came on the same day he signed his eighth recruit for next season (Amir Garrett), six of whom are among the top 100 high school seniors in the country.
Lavin said after the game that it was hard for him to put the win, and the entire day, into perspective -- ask him again at the end of the season.
But he did have definite plans for celebrating afterward, with his former mentor and current special assistant, Gene Keady.
"I told Coach Keady I don't usually drink Maker's Mark," Lavin said. "But I said I think I'm ready to have a Maker's Mark with him tonight."
Bet it tastes better than the coffee.
Steve Lavin was ecstatic to get his first win at St. John's.