In a career full of splendid defensive efforts, Yuta Watanabe turned in one of his finest performances yet on Wednesday
By Eric Detweiler, GW Athletics Communications
Yuta Watanabe understood his job well before he took the court at Charles E. Smith Center on Wednesday night. The GW guard has been tasked with shutting down George Mason's Otis Livingston II before.
Watanabe knew this defensive assignment meant every possession would be a battle. He'd have to slide his feet, fight through screens and contest everything if he had any chance to slow down the high-scoring Patriot.
Watanabe was ready for all that. And then he took it upon himself to push the challenge a step further.
From start to finish, Watanabe made even catching an inbounds pass a chore. He harassed the 5-foot-11 Livingston from one baseline to the other, using his 6-foot-9 reach to keep the speedy point guard from ever getting comfortable.
Watanabe's defensive effort -- plus a game-high 19 points -- provided the spark the Colonials needed to beat their Revolutionary Rival, 80-68, and snap a four-game losing streak.
"I just wanted to show my teammates that I, as a leader, would pressure the ball for 90 feet," Watanabe said. "Hopefully, that told them `You guys also have to lock in.' I guess that worked."
Entering Wednesday, George Mason's leading scorer had hit for at least 20 points in four straight games, but he didn't make his first basket until the final two minutes against the Colonials and finished with three points on 1-of-7 shooting.
It was a vintage performance on both ends for Watanabe, the kind of complete effort that has become his calling card. Yet for a guy who's stacked up the highlights to earn that reputation over four years, this one stuck out.
"What he did today is hard," GW head coach Maurice Joseph said. "And he did that against one of the quickest guards, not in our league but in the country, I think. I have a lot of respect for Otis Livingston, so credit to Yuta. That was pretty impressive."
As usual, Watanabe was quick to share the credit.
There was Armel Potter, who played the role of Livingston on the scout team. The transfer from Charleston Southern is sitting out this season in accordance with NCAA rules, but he provided Watanabe with a fine preview of what was coming.
Potter attacked Watanabe off the dribble at every turn and made the kind of tough shots that Livingston has perfected. After Tuesday's practice, GW's stopper felt ready to handle his business against George Mason.
"I stood up to (Potter)," Watanabe said. "So I knew today I was going to do a great job on defense."
Watanabe's teammates stepped up to help, feeding off his emotion throughout the night.
GW had trouble defensively in its four-game slide, allowing an average of 75 points per game. The Colonials were better Wednesday, holding George Mason well off that pace until a late spurt. They locked down man-to-man to force a season-high 18 turnovers.
Afterward, Joseph celebrated a defense that came up with five home runs, the term his staff uses for producing three consecutive defensive stops.
"We already knew that Yuta is an all-conference defender," Terry Nolan Jr. said. "We just trusted in that, and you could see the way it energized the team."
GW set the tone on its first defensive possession of the game. Watanabe chased Livingston into a trap with Patrick Steeves near the baseline, forcing an errant pass that was swiped by Nolan. The steal turned into a three-point play in transition and a lead the Colonials would never relinquish.
Joseph said he didn't appreciate just how well the Colonials were doing against Livingston in the moment. He remembered turning to assistant Carmen Maciariello when Livingston hit a 3-pointer with 1:56 left and being surprised -- and then proud -- to learn it was his first, and ultimately only, basket of the night.
"Our goal was to keep him in neutral as much as we could," Joseph said. "When he gets to second and third gear, he's a monster, and we limited second and third gear today. I think that's why we were successful."
Watanabe led the way in the confidence-boosting performance, whether he was shadowing Livingston all over the court or stroking his outside shot with confidence.
Watanabe played 39 minutes at maximum effort, hitting 7-of-13 from the field with three 3-pointers. Defensively, he picked up a pair of steals against just one foul.
"[Give] credit where credit is due," George Mason head coach Dave Paulsen said. "I think, obviously, Watanabe does a phenomenal job on both ends of the floor and really disrupts stuff."
Of course, that's not exactly breaking news in Foggy Bottom.
Watanabe has long embraced that role, and GW needs him to have that kind of impact to reach its potential. He'll try to do it again Saturday when the Colonials visit VCU.
After such a physically taxing night, Watanabe said he was looking forward to an ice bath and a massage. Then, it's on to preparation for the Rams and the chance to build on this momentum.
"I'm feeling great, of course," Watanabe said. "We needed this. We needed the W today.
"I have lots of confidence going into Saturday at VCU. It's going to be a tough game, but I think if we play like today, we will be in great shape."
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