St. John's Coach Steve Lavin congratulates UCLA guard Lazeric Jones… (Luis Sinco / Los Angeles…)
The morning had been one of hugs and handshakes for Steve Lavin. As he milled about on the Pauley Pavilion court before the game, the St. John's coach momentarily forgot where he was and nearly took a seat on the UCLA bench.
"Coach [Gene] Keady thankfully reminded me that we were on the other end" of the court, Lavin said.
There was also something reassuringly familiar for Bruins fans about Lavin's return to Westwood.
His team lost.
Shrugging off some manic full-court pressure and poor free-throw shooting in the final minutes, UCLA held on for a 66-59 victory that solidified its NCAA tournament standing with a month left in the regular season.
The Bruins (16-7) have won seven of eight games, the last two part of an emotionally rewarding week that also included a victory over archrival USC.
"We're on a good roll right now," UCLA freshman center Joshua Smith said, "and we're just trying to continue it."
Bruins fans didn't have any perceptible reaction to Lavin in the former UCLA coach's first game on the Pauley sideline in nearly eight years, but they were plenty vocal about Smith and Bruins sophomore forward Reeves Nelson.
Smith staged his own slam-dunk competition on the way to tying a career high with 19 points, and Nelson made an unlikely shot with 34 seconds remaining, described in the official play-by-play as a "Patriot missile buzzer beater."
With UCLA clinging to a 62-59 lead and only three seconds left on the shot clock, Nelson took an inbounds pass from Jerime Anderson along the left sideline and made a three-pointer to double the Bruins' advantage.
"That was him popping out and making a play," UCLA Coach Ben Howland said, suddenly pressing his hands together as if in prayer, "and thank you, Lord, because that was huge."
It wasn't the final shot Nelson, who finished with 12 points and a career-high 17 rebounds, took at St. John's (13-9), which had tried to fluster the Bruins with physical play. The Red Storm forced 22 turnovers but also gave UCLA a season-high 41 free-throw opportunities.
"Any time an East Coast school comes into the West Coast, they're going to try and bully you," Nelson said, "but we don't really have any little sissies on this team."
The Bruins had their own tormentor in the 6-foot-10, 305-pound Smith, who repeatedly powered into the paint for four first-half dunks.
"What you see on film and your game preparation and what you try and simulate is still different than the real thing," said Lavin, who described Smith as a younger version of the San Antonio Spurs' DeJuan Blair.
UCLA grabbed 40 rebounds to 28 for St. John's and took 34 more free throws than the Red Storm, which had only seven attempts. The Bruins missed six of eight free throws during one stretch in the final four minutes, though they grabbed rebounds three times to extend possessions.
"We need to step it up because 27 of 41 is not going to get it done," Lee said, referring to UCLA's conversion rate at the free-throw line.
St. John's had several opportunities to tie the score after guard Dwight Hardy (32 points) made a layup to pull the Red Storm to within 62-59 with 2:07 left. But forward Justin Brownlee lost the ball out of bounds and Smith later blocked a shot by Brownlee to help preserve a victory over a team that was only six days removed from a 15-point victory over Duke.
Lavin and his coaching staff wore sneakers Saturday because they had done the same during the triumph over the Blue Devils. They weren't quite the good-luck charm they had hoped.
More than an hour after the game had ended, Lavin remained outside the visiting locker room chatting with friends and fans.
"I've been so focused on the game," Lavin said, "that I didn't really take in the experience of being here."