LOS ANGELES — Joshua Smith scored 19 points off the bench and Reeves Nelson grabbed a career-high 17 rebounds to lead UCLA's inside game in a messy 66-59 victory over St. John's and former Bruins coach Steve Lavin on Saturday.
It was Lavin's first visit to Pauley Pavilion as an opposing coach, coming nearly eight years after he was fired.
Malcolm Lee added 15 points, Nelson had 12 points, and Malcolm Lee 15 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 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.
Dwight Hardy scored a career-high 32 points — the only player in double digits — for St. John's (13-9). The Red Storm, dominated by nine seniors, fell to 2-6 in true road games and 3-6 in their last nine.
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 and headed to the visitor's bench.
He made his presence known during the game, at times frantically urging on his team, clapping his hands and getting on the referees.
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, perhaps a superstitious nod to the footwear they had on against the Blue Devils.
This one was a sloppy affair, with UCLA committing plenty of turnovers and getting bogged down when the Bruins made 41 trips to the free throw line compared to seven for the Red Storm.
But 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.
Things were close to end the first half, then the Bruins opened the second with a 13-6 run to go up 42-32, the game's first double-digit lead. They did it mostly on free throws, making 9 of 11 during the spurt.
Three more times they owned 10-point leads. Hardy was a one-man show for St. John's, with their other starters combining for 17 points. Dwayne Polee was limited to six points because of foul trouble.
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 half.
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.
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.
Smith, who has gone from starting to coming off the bench to avoid early fouls, and Tyler Lamb helped UCLA's reserves outscore St. John's bench 18-2 in the half.
Lavin spent the entire pre-game warmup greeting and hugging UCLA officials and old friends. UCLA coach Ben Howland paused at the Red Storm bench to hug Lavin and his assistant Rico Hines, who was Lavin's first recruit to Westwood.
Among Lavin's former players on hand was Matt Barnes of the Lakers. Former UCLA great Jamaal Wilkes and Lakers general manager Mitch Kupchak attended, too.