AUBURN, Ala. — Bruce Pearl’s 500th career win couldn’t have been any more different than his first one.
In 1992, the current Auburn basketball head coach got his start at Division II program Southern Indiana. In Pearl’s first career victory, the Screaming Eagles put on an offensive showcase.
“I think it might have been against Indiana Tech, and we scored like a hundred gazillion bajillion points,” Pearl said Wednesday night. “That’s what I remember.”
The actual number was 116, but it was still a long way from what his Auburn team had 25 years later, when he notched win No. 500. The Tigers knocked off SEC West rival LSU 78-74 with what Pearl called Auburn’s best defensive performance of the conference schedule.
AUBURN 78, LSU 74: Recap and box score from Bruce Pearl’s 500th win
The numbers on the scoreboard in Auburn on Wednesday night soon became secondary to the one that covered t-shirts, signs, a commemorative jersey presented by program legend Charles Barkley and the banner behind Pearl in his postgame press conference — 500.
“I’m just really glad that they didn’t have to hide this banner in the closet for a few weeks,” Pearl said. “I had no idea that they were going to do all this.”
Gratefulness dominated Pearl’s comments following his landmark victory. He spoke highly of Southern Indiana, which gave him his first head coaching job after years as an assistant at Iowa.
He shared his thankfulness for Milwaukee-Wisconsin — his first Division I gig — and the Tennessee program where he became a big-name coach.
But most of all, Pearl thanked Auburn, which gave him a second chance after the NCAA investigation that led to his firing at Tennessee in 2011.
“For Auburn to rescue me and to get me back into coaching and get me back into my ministry and give me this program has been a great blessing,” Pearl said.
— Auburn Basketball (@AuburnMBB) January 19, 2017
Shortly after the clock hit all zeroes in the Tigers’ grind-it-out, defensive win over LSU, Pearl stood on the giant AU logo at center court in Auburn Arena. His players — several of them dancing in celebration with their No. 500 t-shirts and signs — surrounded him.
“It means a lot to be a part of that,” Auburn forward Horace Spencer said. “(Auburn assistant coach Chuck Person) said that we would look back in 30 years at this celebration and realize that not many people can say they were involved in that.”
For Pearl, win No. 500 represented more than a historic achievement. Auburn lost four of its last five games heading into the LSU matchup — all in conference play — and a victory over the Bayou Bengals gave his team more confidence heading into a weekend matchup with red-hot rival Alabama.
The Tigers are 2-4 in the SEC as Danjel Purifoy, the team’s second-leading scorer and rebounder, continues to sit with an ankle injury.
Pearl feels the pressure for Auburn to take the next step this season after just 9 SEC wins in his first two seasons. His recruiting efforts brought several blue-chip players to the Plains, but they haven’t translated into a team that can challenge for a postseason bid just yet.
“I stress about the fact that we’re not winning faster,” Pearl said. “We’re still a young team, and we still have lots of challenges.”
But Pearl is confident his team can add digits to the 5 that now leads his career win total — enough digits that will put Auburn in either the NCAA Tournament or the NIT for the first time since 2009.
“I still think this is a team that can be in the postseason,” Pearl said. “But it’s going to be tough. It’s going to be a grind, an absolute grind, with this conference schedule. But to be 2-2 without (Purifoy) is pretty good.”