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st. john's red storm

Steve Lavin Returns to the St. John’s Bench

DENVER, CO - MARCH 17:  Head coach Steve Lavin of the St. John's Red Storm shouts from the bench against the Gonzaga Bulldogs during the second round of the 2011 NCAA men's basketball tournament at Pepsi Center on March 17, 2011 in Denver, Colorado.  (Photo by Doug Pensinger/Getty Images) *** Local Caption *** Steve Lavin

St. John's beat Lehigh last night to improve their record to 2-0, but the highlight of the evening came not during the Red Storm's second-half rally, but before the game even started: Steve Lavin, who on October 6 underwent surgery for prostate cancer, returned to the St. John's bench for the first time this season. Lavin — who had returned to practice earlier in the week — caught fans by surprise, and his entrance inspired chants of "We love Lavin!" from those among the crowd of 4,409 who arrived in time for tip-off.

Lavin said after the game that he'd originally been planning to return this coming Sunday, for the Johnnies' game against UMBC, but assistant coach Mike Dunlap "nudged" him to return one game earlier. And so Lavin was on the bench this time as his team staged its second comeback in three nights, this time rallying for a 78-73 win after trailing by as many as 16 points in the first half and by 14 with just 11:09 remaining.

The Daily News, meanwhile, points out another benefit to Lavin's return last night:

One side benefit of Lavin returning for a nationally televised game is that it will squelch rumors that he is incapacitated. Ricardo Gathers, a 6-7 forward from Louisiana who had committed verbally to St. John’s, decided to reopen his recruiting on Tuesday. In an ESPN report, his brother Greg brought up Lavin’s health.

“I was so surprised and caught off guard that there was speculation and rumors that I was going to step down and my health was such that I wasn’t going to return,” Lavin said. “I could see that if I was in my 70s.”

God'sgift Achiuwa led the Red Storm with 21 points on perfect shooting: He was 6-for-6 from the field, and 9-for-9 from the free-throw line.

Photo: Doug Pensinger/2011 Getty Images