Ann Arbor — Regular-season openers have become a celebratory night for Michigan in recent years.
Two years ago, the Wolverines raised a Big Ten tournament title banner to the rafters at Crisler Center. They hung up another one last season along with a Final Four banner to commemorate their national runner-up finish in 2017-18.
There wasn’t another pregame banner-raising ceremony on Tuesday as Michigan kicked off its 2019-20 campaign. Rather, it was a celebration of a different sort as the Juwan Howard era was officially ushered in with a 79-71 victory over Appalachian State.
Senior center Jon Teske and junior guard Eli Brooks made sure the night wasn’t ruined — though the Mountaineers certainly did their best by chopping Michigan’s 30-point second-half lead down to four in the final minutes.
Teske needed just 11 minutes of playing time to record a double-double en route to finishing with 17 points and 13 rebounds. Brooks scored a career-high 24 — blowing past his previous high of nine points — and made five clutch free throws in the closing seconds to prevent a colossal collapse.
Junior forward Isaiah Livers (14 points) scored a crucial basket during the tense finish as Michigan won its 17th consecutive season opener despite committing 17 turnovers and making only two shots in the final 12-plus minutes.
"We just got away from the little things," Teske said. "First half we were really moving the ball, knocking down open shots, sharing the ball, making that one extra pass. In the second half we got a little tense. We've got to relax. We're up 30 points. We've got to try to keep that lead and relax.
"We're going to learn from this and grow from this. We just have to keep that 30-point lead, that 20-point lead and keep that foot on the pedal."
After going up 30 with 12:59 to play, the Wolverines did the exact opposite and allowed Appalachian State to rip off a 27-3 run that whittled the deficit to 70-64 with 2:23 remaining.
The prolonged sloppy stretch was riddled with careless turnovers, defensive breakdowns and empty possessions. There was also an eight-minute scoring drought until Livers scored on a putback with 1:31 to go.
“In the first half we were on fire. We were locked in defensively, offensively,” Teske said. “We just have to come out in the second half and do the same thing. We’ve got to act like the score is 0-0 instead of us up 30. We were scoreboard watching. We’ve got to stay locked in mentally.”
Even after Livers’ bucket helped ease some nerves, the Wolverines weren’t out of the woods. They missed five consecutive free throws down the stretch as Appalachian State pulled within 73-69 with 20 seconds left.
But that’s as close as it would get. Brooks and senior guard Zavier Simpson combined to make six free throws the rest of the way to put a bow on Howard’s first official win.
Justin Forrest finished with 27 points for Appalachian State, which forced 10 Michigan turnovers and held the Wolverines to 11 made field goals in the second half.
"I think the intensity fell off on the defensive end," Brooks said of the final 10 minutes. "We gave up too many second-chance points and transition points.
"Obviously there are a lot of errors we can improve on, but a win is a win. We're on the left side, not the right side."
Before the game turned into a white-knuckler, Teske put on a show as he scored the first 11 points for Michigan. He needed just 4 minutes, 7 seconds to reach double figures after backing down a defender and scoring in the post, knocking down a mid-range jumper along the baseline, burying a 3-pointer from the wing and cleaning up the boards with an offensive putback.
Teske’s putback also kick-started a 16-3 run that put Michigan up, 25-8, with 10:24 left in the first half. Brooks helped key the spurt with two 3-pointers before sophomore center Colin Castleton capped it with a basket in the paint off an Appalachian State turnover.
Michigan’s offense hit a bump when Simpson picked up second foul at the 12:22 mark. The Wolverines missed seven of eight shots — with Castleton’s bucket being the lone made field goal — as Appalachian State cut the deficit to 27-17 with 7:54 left in the half.
Teske made sure it didn’t get any closer at that point. He found sophomore forward Brandon Johns Jr. for a wide-open dunk off a turnover and scored at the rim during a 12-2 spurt that sent the Wolverines into halftime with a commanding 46-25 lead.
That margin grew in the second half when Brooks went on a scoring spree of his own against Appalachian State’s 3-2 zone. He drained three 3-pointers over a 3-minute, 23-second stretch and broke loose for a fast-break layup to make it 63-33 with 15 minutes remaining.
But just when it looked like the Wolverines were going to cruise to the finish line, they let their foot off the gas and made Howard sweat out his first win.
"In a situation like that where you're facing adversity, the best thing that our group did is stay together, stay connected," Howard said. "I've seen before in the past with teams I either played with or coached with, when a team makes a run like they did the group gets quiet. Guys start overthinking, overanalyzing. One thing I do not want our team to do is start overanalyzing every possession in their head and putting their head downs.
"We have to figure it out as a group and continue to stay within the process. Mental stability is part of the game. You're going to have some ups, you're going to have some lows in the game. That's part of it. You've just got to stay the course and our group did."