LOS ANGELES -- Moments before tipoff of Saturday's UCLA-St. John's game, a student yell leader clad in a blue and gold striped rugby shirt grabbed a microphone and addressed the Pauley Pavilion crowd.
"OK Bruins, you all know who's back," he shouted. "Let's remind Steve Lavin exactly what it feels like to lose at Pauley Pavilion."
UCLA did indeed hand St. John's a 66-59 loss, but the vitriol directed at the often-criticized Lavin during his return paled in comparison to what he regularly experienced during his turbulent seven seasons in Westwood.
There were no anti-Lavin signs or T-shirts in the three-quarters full crowd the way there often were before. There were no boos or catcalls during starting lineup announcements because UCLA didn't introduce either coach. The closest thing to a taunt Lavin could recall after the game was a fan behind the bench asking when he was going to hire former Bruin Ray Young as an assistant coach?
"Just another day in Westwood," Lavin said with a chuckle. "As I anticipated, it was a bit surreal walking into the opposing locker room. It did take me a moment. (Gene) Keady thankfully reminded me we were at the other end."
The civility of the UCLA crowd was one of the few pleasant aspects of the day for Lavin because the game itself was a disappointment. The Bruins' size advantage in the paint proved too much for the Johnnies to overcome to strengthen their NCAA tournament resume with a much-needed victory over a fellow bubble team.
UCLA big men Joshua Smith and Reeves Nelson combined for 31 points on 11 of 14 shooting and grabbed a total of 25 rebounds between them. The smaller, quicker Johnnies compensated by forcing 22 turnovers with their full-court pressure but that frenetic style put UCLA in the double bonus by the 10-minute mark of the second half, enabling the Bruins to shoot 33 free throws after halftime.
The final chance evaporated for St John's with 34 seconds to go when UCLA inbounded the ball with one on the shot clock yet managed to score the game-clinching bucket. Nelson sank a fallaway corner 3-pointer as the shot clock buzzer sounded to increase UCLA's lead to 65-59, ruining the Johnnies chances of making a winner out of Lavin in his homecoming game.
"We definitely wanted to win this game with him coming back to his former school," said senior guard Dwight Hardy, who scored a game-high 32 points in the loss. "He didn't talk about it, but we knew in our minds. Anytime a coach comes back to his former school, he wants to get a win. We wanted to do it for him but unfortunately we came up short."
Perhaps the tepid reaction Lavin received shouldn't have been a surprise considering many current UCLA students weren't even in middle school yet when he last coached the Bruins.
They don't remember his teams' tendency to alternate between marquee victories and exasperating losses to the likes of Cal State Northridge or Northern Arizona. They don't remember the ‘Lose Lavin' t-shirts that popped up in the student section during the 10-19 season that got him fired eight years ago. And they don't remember the way he was booed his first time back in Pauley Pavilion as a broadcaster.
"This was nothing personal for us," UCLA junior guard Malcolm Lee said. "We knew if we got this win it would help our NCAA tournament resume. It was less about Lavin and more about what it did for us."
Once the final buzzer sounded and Lavin had a few minutes to decompress, he found time to enjoy seeing a few familiar faces.
A fan interrupted one of Lavin's postgame interviews to show him a photo they'd taken together when he was coaching at UCLA. Others waved to him or shook his hand as he was talking outside the St. John's locker room. And more than an hour after the game ended, Lavin was still standing courtside in his grey suit and white sneakers, encircled by friends, fans and former players.
"This was home for me for 12 years and I've always felt comfortable at UCLA and Pauley Pavilion," Lavin said. "That doesn't mean my final season wasn't challenging. Nobody wants to struggle through a 10-19 season coaching under 11 championship banners, but that doesn't take away from this being a place that shaped me."