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NEW YORK -- In the final, frantic minutes at Madison Square Garden, with 14,514 fans standing and cheering and forgetting -- for the moment -- all about Carmelo Anthony, Steve Lavin was not coaching basketball as much as he was managing the human condition.
Pittsburgh and St. John's had been playing a game Woody Hayes and Bo Schembechler would have loved, and it appeared the Red Storm would end up buried in a pile of fourth-and-1 dust.
The Panthers were 24-2 after all, the fourth-ranked team in America and one physical enough to frighten the '85 Bears. The Red Storm's run of high-profile victories over highly regarded opponents appeared destined to die, at least until Lavin gathered his players in a huddle and ordered them to start having fun.
"Life will never get any better than this moment," the coach told them. "This is Madison Square Garden, you have this place electrified, you're playing with your best friends, and we're playing the No. 4 team in the country."
|Steve Lavin has given up on ties. And wins? He's in favor of those.|
Lavin spoke of the joy they should feel wearing the St. John's uniform in this building, on this day. He asked them to savor the journey and ignore the destination. He told them to "celebrate this gift," if only because he's the son of an English lit teacher forever looking to write a big-picture ending.
So his star, Dwight Hardy, authored Lavin a closing chapter he'll never forget, emerging from beneath the basket to sink an underhanded scoop shot with 1.2 seconds left to give St. John's a 60-59 victory and guarantee the school will be ranked in the polls for the first time in more than 10 years.
And this is what Hardy had to say about the coach who put the ball in his hands: "He's the calmest of everybody. He's just sitting there smiling, saying we were going to win the game. ... He can relate to us because he's just like a kid."
And there was this from another one of Lavin's seniors, another in an endless parade of them, Justin Burrell: "He doesn't really coach. I don't know what he does."
Out of context, a quote like that could frame a somewhat misguided view of Lavin's time at UCLA, where he made it to a bunch of Sweet 16s, even one Elite Eight, and yet was cast in the shadow of Wizard Wooden as a fast-talking recruiter who couldn't tell an X from an O.
Burrell was only speaking endearingly of a coach who knows how to get his student-athletes to relax in the heat of the Big East battle.
"As far as people saying Steve is a better recruiter than a coach, that's nonsense," said Lavin's wife, Mary Ann, after she pulled herself from a victory hug in the tunnel. "The proof is in the pudding."
The pudding? St. John's is a lock to return to the NCAA tournament for the first time in forever, and a good bet to make it into the second week of play. Lavin did benefit by inheriting such an experienced core, but St. John's isn't beating the likes of Duke and Notre Dame and UConn and Pitt on the players' know-how alone.
The Red Storm project the vibe of a smart, resourceful, well-coached team, and if that is the biggest upset of the season, so be it. Lavin took off seven seasons after he was fired at UCLA, finding his voice in a broadcasting career that was comfy, cozy, but never meant to be everlasting.
Mary Ann said her husband was looking for the right coaching job, the right school, and the right city. Steve was a San Francisco native and a West Coast coach, "but he's really more of an East Coast guy," his wife said. "He's always loved New York. St. John's is a dream job for him."
Never mind that everyone except Looie Carnesecca turned down St. John's AD Chris Monasch when he was searching for Norm Roberts' replacement; Joe Torre was the Yankees' fourth choice, too.
"Steve's done a great job managing the emotions of his players," Monasch said. "He's positioned this team to be a threat to go deep in the tournament."
And no, Monasch wasn't talking about the Big East tournament.
"My hope," Lavin said, "was by March to have a dangerous, scrappy, opportunistic team that could beat anybody in the country if they didn't bring an A-game, or if they overlooked us. It appears we've hit that in late January and February."
St. John's hit it again Saturday against Pitt, which held a five-point lead with a little more than three minutes left. The Red Storm grabbed a couple of huge offensive rebounds, took the lead on Hardy's free throws with 28 seconds to go, and then set up their final play after Travon Woodall, one of Bob Hurley's players at St. Anthony, sank a 3-pointer to put Pitt ahead by one.
Hardy kept the ball on a pick-and-roll, sliced through a scrum on the baseline, and soon enough, Sinatra was playing on the speakers. The building quaked as the winning coach shook hands with an usher before hugging his wife.
Lavin would praise his team for its resilience, and he would praise himself for maintaining a more even temperament than the one that shaped him as a 32-year-old rookie sitting in Wooden's chair.
Dressed in a navy blue pinstriped suit, an open-collared shirt, and white tennis shoes, Lavin would go on to swear that his days of wearing a tie to the gym are over. "Without the tie," he said, "I thought I was doing a more effective job of teaching.
"It's so basic, but there isn't anything more essential than breath and oxygen, and so I thought my decision-making and clarity [were] at a higher level than when I didn't have the tie on."
Lavin is not your most conventional coach, but he's made a quicker transition to the Garden bench than did another out-of-towner, Mike D'Antoni, and he's got two classrooms full of Melo-like recruits on the way.
But Saturday was more journey, less destination. Three thousand miles away from the Knicks' pursuit of Carmelo Anthony, St. John's savored a sweet moment in the city's basketball renaissance when its coach threw out the playbook and told his kids to soak it all in.