By Charles Goldberg
AUBURN, Ala. -- There was the lopsided score and four players in double figures. But the number that impressed Bruce Pearl in his Auburn Arena debut had nothing to do with points or rebounds.
"The first thing that jumps off the stat sheet for me is the attendance. I don't know what y'all were expecting, but it's unbelievable," Pearl said after Friday night's 94-58 exhibition win over West Alabama in which attendance officially hit a nearly-full-house of 8,523.
It was Pearl's first game at Auburn, his first in three seasons since he coached at Tennessee, his first since having back surgery three days earlier, and it was all a success. Pearl said the Tigers played even better than they had been practicing.
Auburn sold tickets to all the seats in an arena that included the likes of Charles Barkley to cheer on his Tigers. Pearl received a standing ovation when he came out with his team.
Pearl said he was also buoyed by a call from football coach Gus Malzahn during the day.
"I can't tell you how much it meant that Gus reached out. I just can't tell you, because as a coach, he knew it didn't matter if it was an exhibition game, it didn't matter what kind of game we were playing. He knew it was my first game back in a few years," Pearl said.
Like Pearl, Antoine Mason, the nation's leading returning scorer, made his Auburn Arena debut a success, scoring 22. KT Harrell had 21.
Pearl had reached out to fans since he was hired in March. They responded, and especially so the students who filled up their seats in the lower level.
The Tigers will start for real next Friday night when Pearl faces one of his former teams, Milwaukee, in the arena at 9. Auburn can't wait, just as it had trouble waiting for the exhibition game after a forever practice routine.
"How many months?" Mason asked Harrell.
"It feels like a year," Harrell said.
Pearl said Harrell "was terrific. He was doing it all out there. He had a terrific stat line."
Newcomer Cinmeon Bowers had a double-double with 15 points and 10 rebounds.
The exhibition win was something to build on.
"I liked my starters, but our depth is an issue," Pearl said. "I like the fact we turned them over and created tempo, which was good. I thought we gobbled up most of the 50-50 balls.
Auburn forced 29 turnovers and had a commanding edge in shots taken, 73-43, and shots made, 32-18.
"I thought the guys played better together," Pearl said. "This was one of the better days. I've not been pleased how we've practiced. I'm not pleased with the progress where we are right now.
"I thought we got pushed around inside. I thought we got big-boyed."
The down side didn't stop there. Matthew Atewe, who had a rod inserted into his left leg last season, hurt it again in the game.
"I can't imagine he broke it again," Pearl said, though "he felt quite a bit of pain." On a team with only scholarship players available, Pearl said "we can't afford another loss."
"He thought he was kicked. I hope that it was."
Charles Goldberg is a Senior Writer at AuburnTigers.com. Follow him on Twitter: Follow @AUGoldMine