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St. John's team got a life lesson

SYRACUSE, N.Y. -- Corny as it sounds, college athletics, at its core, is supposed to be about education.

The St. John's men's basketball team received a major life lesson on Sunday in upstate New York.

The final score tells us that No. 9-ranked Syracuse blew out the Red Storm, 77-58.

But the real winners were the St. John's players and coaches, who will remember this day for a very different reason.

Assistant coach Rico Hines delivered the news at the team's pregame breakfast. Albert "Cap" Lavin, the father of head coach Steve Lavin, had passed away overnight, at the age of 82. Steve was on his way to the airport, to catch a flight to New York City, and then another one to San Francisco, to go home and bury his dad.

"It was crazy -- I can't explain it," said guard D'Angelo Harrison. "It was just quiet in the room."

Hines was going to coach the team in Lavin's absence -- his first game as a head coach, at any level. And his heart was heavy, too. Hines was Lavin's very first recruit, when Lavin was the head coach at UCLA. The two have been close ever since.

Not only was Hines feeling for his friend and mentor, he was mourning the loss of Cap, too. While Hines was playing for the Bruins, Cap -- a former player himself at the University of San Francisco -- personally helped Hines with his free throw shooting.

"Losing Cap is a big blow," Hines said. "Today was bigger than basketball, for me."

The current St. John's players also got to spend some time with Cap earlier this season, when the Red Storm played a game at San Francisco in early December.

"He came to me (and said), 'Amir, keep getting them rebounds,'" said forward Amir Garrett. "He talked to everybody individually, and (was) telling them about their game. ... I really thought that was amazing."

In the locker room before the game, one of the other assistant coaches wrote "Do It For Cap" on the board. Lavin himself communicated with his players, and with Hines, via text message in the hours leading up to tipoff.

"He shot me another text right before the game started and gave me a vote of confidence," Hines said.

The players sent Lavin text messages, too. "I just said, 'I love you Coach Lavin,'" said forward Jakarr Sampson. "He said, 'I love you too.'"

St. John's already was facing a tall order on Sunday. Yes, the Red Storm had won six of their past seven. But Syracuse has the longest home winning streak in the country -- now 37 games in a row -- and the Carrier Dome was packed with 27,169 fans, the second-largest crowd of the season.

Not surprisingly, the Orange jumped out to a 37-24 halftime lead. St. John's made just eight of 24 field goal attempts in the first 20 minutes. And the Red Storm uncharacteristically committed 11 turnovers -- the amount they average for an entire game.

"It was definitely a different feeling, not having our leader," Garrett said.

Sampson admitted there were moments where his thoughts strayed from the game. "It's hard to even imagine that, losing your father," he said.

But then a totally different team showed up in the second half. The Red Storm started making shots, and taking care of the ball. Suddenly, St. John's was within 48-43 with 11 minutes and change to play, and the massive crowd grew restless, with scattered boos and much shifting in seats.

"Our kids fought," Hines said. "They worked as hard as they possibly could."

"We figured out how to harness our emotions, and we played together," Sampson said. "We started crashing the boards, rebounding and playing St. John's basketball."

In the end, Syracuse had too much talent -- especially with James Southerland returning from a six-game suspension and contributing 13 points, including three second-half treys. The Orange are Final Four contenders, while the Red Storm -- comprised almost entirely of freshmen and sophomores -- are just trying to sneak into the Big Dance.

It wasn't the signature win St. John's was hoping for, to boost its NCAA Tournament résumé. But it may prove even more valuable down the road.

"It showed a glimpse of what we had inside of us, going on that quick run," Garrett said. "I think it could bring us together, closer as a family."

Before boarding the bus back to New York City, the 20-year-old Garrett dispensed the smartest words spoken at the Carrier Dome on Sunday.

"Stuff like this happens -- you can't take your loved ones for granted," Garrett said. "You've got to cherish each and every individual in your family. And this is our basketball family, and we've got to cherish each other."

The best lesson a 19-point loss could ever deliver.