Their hopes of giving Lavin a victory over No. 12 Louisville fell short, though, in a 72-58 loss to the Cardinals.
"Our plan was to win this game for him. We came up short, unfortunately," said freshman center Chris Obekpa. "We've just got to stay strong for him and when he gets back, just keep practicing and working hard. Hopefully we'll get the next win and wipe out this bitter taste from our mouths."
The bad tastes comes as the Red Storm (15-10, 7-6 Big East) have lost three of their last four during a stretch they knew would show them where they stood in conference. The losses—against Georgetown, Syracuse and the Cardinals—have come against teams now ranked in the top 15 nationally.
Assistant coach Rico Hines, filling in for Lavin, was proud of his young team's effort despite the loss.
"I love the fight of this team," Hines said. "We had three things on the board: play hard, play smart and play for Coach and his family. I think they did two of them. ... I think they played for Coach and his family. I don't think we played smart at times."
But guard D'Angelo Harrison, who scored 18 points and now has 1,001 for his career, said that the Red Storm have grown over that challenging stretch.
"We're not into moral victories but we still have a fight in us. Nobody gave up," Harrison said. "There's a bad feeling right now, but we're still in a good place. . I can tell the team is maturing a lot."
Trailing 32-23 at halftime, St. John's scored the first 10 points of the second half for a one-point edge. Then Louisville's Russ Smith took over, scoring 12 straight over a 3:03 stretch that put the Cardinals ahead for good.
Smith finished with 24 points for Louisville, including 21 in the second half.
"We didn't have answer for him," Hines said of Smith. "He was just able to get a piece of the paint every time. ... He's a one-man fast break."
Peyton Siva added 12 points, Chane Behanan 10 and Gorgui Dieng 10 with a career-high 17 rebounds as the Cardinals (20-5, 8-4) climbed into a three-way tie for second place in the Big East Conference.
Phil Greene IV scored 21 points for St. John's (15-10, 7-6), losers of three of four. The Red Storm were outscored in the paint 32-16 and outrebounded 45-37.
"I think we learned that we need to constantly get on the boards," Hines said. "When they get 15 offensive rebounds, that's a big number."
Both teams shot 23 of 62 from the field (37 percent). But Louisville's inside dominance, Smith's offensive lift and some timely turnovers forced by the Cardinals pull away in a rough game.
St. John's was coming off a 77-58 loss at Syracuse, but the Red Storm had built momentum over their previous eight games. They had averaged nearly 72 points per game in their six games compared to just 57 in losses to the Orange and Georgetown.
Midway through the first half, however, Louisville couldn't contain Red Storm shooters Greene and Harrison, who combined for 13 points during a 16-6 run that put them ahead 19-16. Louisville's combination of bad shots and bad passes helped spark St. John's transition game and those two finished them off with jumpers including one each from behind the arc.
Louisville responded with an 8-0 run ignited by a couple of turnovers and three jumpers by Siva, who had eight points in the half along with Chane Behanan. The senior guard finished another 8-0 spurt by the Cardinals over the final 1:41 of the half by driving the length of the court and slicing through for a layup at the horn to provide a 32-23 lead.
Harrison had 13 and Greene seven in the half for St. John's, which hit just 9 of 26 from the field (35 percent). Unfazed, the Red Storm scored the first 10 points of the second half to go back ahead before Louisville answered with yet another spurt (12-4) led by Smith, who scored 10 straight to put the Cardinals back up 44-35.
Following Smith's spurt, the Red Storm trailed by as many as 17 and never got closer than 10. They hung with one of the top teams in the country but need to learn how to finish them off.
That's a point Lavin will no doubt drive home when he returns.
"If Coach Lav was here, he'd say the same thing. We are young but we don't want to use young as crutch," Hines said. "We're not going to use that excuse. We just didn't execute down the stretch. And like I said, Russ (Smith) did a good job of taking over the game."