NEW YORK -- As days go, Wednesday was pretty special for new St. John's coach Steve Lavin.
It began with Lavin finalizing his blockbuster eight-man recruiting class with the addition of 6-foot-7 wing Amir Garrett, and it ended with his first college basketball victory in seven years, a 79-66 win over Columbia at Carnesecca Arena before 4,657.
"You're clearly pleased," Lavin said. "I think I'm ready to have a Maker's Mark tonight back at the hotel with coach [Gene] Keady."
After spending four seasons under former coach Norm Roberts (now an SNY analyst), the nine St. John's seniors are adjusting to their new coach, the former UCLA coach and ESPN analyst. As a show of appreciation, they gave Lavin the game ball after his first win.
"We're going to get it painted, sign it," senior forward Justin Burrell said. "It means a lot to us. We're all very appreciative to be able to play this game of basketball, especially at St. John's."
Said Lavin: "I have some [game balls] that are out in storage out in California. Mostly the bigger wins of the career but this will definitely go in the office here. Nice keep sake."
Down 39-35 at the break, the Johnnies faced the prospect of beginning the Lavin Era 0-2, but they outscored the Lions 44-27 in the second half. It was St. John's 12th straight win over Columbia, dating to 1979.
"We knew we had to get this win because nobody wants to start the season 0-2," senior guard Paris Horne said.
The Johnnies lost to St. Mary's, 76-71, in the wee hours Tuesday morning in a game that began at 2 a.m. EST and was shown on ESPN. After taking a cross-country flight home Tuesday, the Johnnies were back on the court 38 hours after the St. Mary's game.
"It was better than Monday, or was it Tuesday?" Lavin joked of the Columbia game. "It was better than Monday or Tuesday."
The defining moment in the game came late in the second half when Malik Boothe lofted an alley-oop pass above the rim in front of the student section and Burrell leaped high before throwing down a monster dunk as the students shouted and stomped their feet in support.
Burrell, a 6-foot-8 senior forward, grimaced and hung on the rim for a brief instant to punctuate the play.
"We really wanted to get this win for Coach Lav," Burrell said. "Definitely should've got it yesterday."
Columbia freshman guard Dyami Starks, who once dropped 55 points in a high school game in Minnesota, was on fire in the first half, making 5 of 7 from beyond the arc for 15 points.
But Starks failed to register a single point in the second half, getting his only 3-point attempt blocked by freshman Dwayne Polee.
D.J. Kennedy led the Johnnies (1-1) with 18 points on 7 of 13 shooting and Justin Brownlee added 15. Polee scored 10 points on 3 of 8 shooting and grabbed nine rebounds after tallying 16 points at St. Mary's.
The Johnnies opened the second half on an 11-3 run to take a 46-42 lead on a putback from Brownlee.
Columbia closed to within 52-51 on a 3-pointer from Noruwa Agho (team-high 18 points), but St. John's ran off a 14-2 spurt, getting 3-pointers form Boothe and Malik Stith, to extend the lead to 66-53.
The Johnnies next head to the Great White North for the Great Alaska Shootout, beginning Nov. 25 against Ball State.
There, the players hope to keep the good vibes flowing for Lavin.
"Coach Lav makes it fun," Horne said.
Added Kennedy: "He always keeps us cool, even in pressure moments. He's just always cool. It's great playing with a coach who is confident in you and your teammates."
Free throws: Paris Horne is now third all-time in St. John's history with 124 3-pointers...Redshirt senior forward Rob Thomas of Harlem is not with the team and is taking time off to focus on his academics, sources said. He didn't make the trip to California...Former St. John's assistant Freddie Quartlebaum was in the stands.