LOS ANGELES – Steve Lavin was so busy saying hello and waving at old friends and associates when he walked out of the locker room, he nearly headed to the wrong bench.
"Luckily, Coach K (Gene Keady) reminded me we're at the opposite end," he said.
It was that kind of day for Lavin, who ended up on the losing end at Pauley Pavilion much as he did in his final season coaching UCLA.
"Just another day at Westwood," he said drily.
Joshua Smith scored 19 points off the bench and Reeves Nelson grabbed a career-high 17 rebounds to lead the Bruins' inside game in a messy 66-59 victory over St. John's on Saturday, marking Lavin's return to UCLA for the first time as an opposing coach.
"I did notice that some of the upper tier of seats weren't filled," he said.
Indeed, Lavin's presence didn't generate boffo box office. The crowd of 8,592 wasn't much more than this season's average of 7,313. Asked what would have happened if attendance had been similar during his tenure, Lavin responded with a smile, "I'm not getting into that."
The sloppy game nearly matched the dull atmosphere, with UCLA committing 22 turnovers. It bogged down when the Bruins made 41 trips — 33 in the second half — to the foul line compared to seven for the Red Storm in a game officiated by Pac-10 referees.
"Wow," Lavin said. "Welcome to a road game."
Malcolm Lee added 15 points, Nelson had 12 points, and Tyler Honeycutt 11 for the senior-less Bruins (16-7), who have won three in a row and seven of their last eight.
Nelson hit a 3-pointer from the left side off an inbound pass with 34 seconds to play, giving the Bruins a much-needed cushion after they blew most of a 10-point lead over the final five minutes.
"That was not drawn up by me," UCLA coach Ben Howland said. "That was him popping out and making a play and me saying, 'Thank you, Lord,' because that was huge."
Dwight Hardy scored a career-high 32 — the only player in double digits — for St. John's (13-9), which fell to 2-6 in true road games and 3-6 in its last nine.
"They got a lead and it was hard to come back," Hardy said.
Lavin was not introduced as the visiting coach after his team's starting lineup was announced for the nationally televised game, in keeping with tradition. As a result, there was no noticeable reaction when he walked on the court eight years after being fired.
That continued throughout the game, unlike his final season at UNLV, when students would wear T-shirts that read, "Fire Lavin Immediately."
"I understand when you coach at UCLA it's short-term," he said. "There's only one pope and that's John Wooden. The rest of us are cardinals coming through."
Lavin went 145-78 during seven years in Westwood and took his team to the final 16 of the NCAA tournament five times in six years, a feat matched only by Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski.
His Bruins won at least 20 games every season except his last in 2002-03, when their 10-19 record marked the school's first losing season in 55 years. After several years broadcasting games for ESPN, he was hired at St. John's last March.
Lavin's biggest win so far in New York came last week, when the Red Storm upset then-No. 3 Duke 93-78. He and his staff wore white tennis shoes Saturday, and Lavin said afterward it was a superstitious nod to the footwear they had on against the Blue Devils.
"Steve is doing a great job," Howland said. "They have a very good team and one that has great potential to be in the NCAA tournament."
UCLA missed four straight free throws and Hardy scored off his own steal to draw the Red Storm to 62-59 with 2:07 left. Both teams endured a series of missed shots before Nelson's 3 and a free throw by Smith closed it out.
"It was a slugfest," Lavin said. "It was a Big East team facing a Pac-10 version of a Big East team."
The Bruins got off to a slow start, likely a result of the 10 a.m. local tipoff and similar to how they began against Stanford in another early start two weeks ago. This time, they fell behind 13-4, with Hardy scoring nine points to give St. John's its biggest lead of the game.
UCLA got a taste of the Big East's physical play, with Smith and Nelson ending up on the floor after tussles for the ball. Typical of the Bruins' nine turnovers was an inbound pass by Nelson that bounced off the foot of teammate Lazeric Jones and got picked up by Poole, who scored for two of St. John's 10 points off UCLA's miscues.
"Anytime an East Coast school comes into the West Coast, they are going to try and bully you," Nelson said. "But we don't really have any sissies on our team. You could just tell that they were trying to punk us, and we just weren't really having that. I was proud of the team for doing that."
UCLA found success getting the ball inside to Smith, the 6-foot-10 freshman who scored on three consecutive dunks. That sparked an 18-8 run to end the half with the Bruins leading 29-26. They held an 18-9 rebounding edge, with Nelson grabbing nearly half of the Bruins' boards.
"When you dunk, you get the team riled up and the crowd riled up," Smith said.
Beforehand, Howland paused at the Red Storm bench to hug Lavin and his assistant Rico Hines, who was Lavin's first recruit to Westwood.
"We both praised each other and tried to help each other's self-esteem in these tough towns we work in," Lavin said.
Among Lavin's former players on hand was Matt Barnes of the Lakers and Kris Johnson. Former UCLA great Jamaal Wilkes and Lakers general manager Mitch Kupchak attended, too.