A Fitting End
Yuta Watanabe got the Senior Night he deserved with the best performance of his career
By Eric Detweiler, GW Athletics Communications
Yuta Watanabe figured he'd shed a few tears on Senior Night, but the GW guard believed he'd be able to fend them off until the postgame locker room, where only his teammates and coaches would be able to see them.
That plan had gone out the window by the time Watanabe hoisted his final shot in Wednesday's 72-56 win over Fordham. The emotion of scoring a career-high 31 points in his final Charles E. Smith Center appearance with his parents in the crowd for the first time in over two years had simply proved too much. And that was just fine with him.
"My eyes were really bad," Watanabe said with a laugh. "The last 3 I took I couldn't even see the rim. I just took it."
Watanabe's excellence against the Rams helped the Colonials build a comfortable lead and turn his final home game into a celebration of four memorable seasons. The Japanese standout hit 11-of-17 from the field and all seven free throws to eclipse his previous career best of 29 points set three weeks ago.
The tears arrived after the free throw with 2:59 left that gave Watanabe his 30th point and brought the fans to their feet. He dabbed his face with his jersey and composed himself well enough to sink the second one, then played two more minutes with his eyes red and puffy.
That set the stage for a final exit ripped from Hollywood. Upon being replaced by Maceo Jack, Watanabe offered hugs to everyone on the court before meeting head coach Maurice Joseph on the sideline for a lengthy embrace as the fans roared their approval.
"He deserved that ovation," Joseph said, his voice heavy with feeling. "He deserved more to be honest with you. Just really happy for him."
It was that kind of night. By tipoff, Watanabe had already received two standing ovations, first walking to center court with his parents in tow during the senior ceremony and again upon receiving a ball commemorating his 1,000th career point.
Watanabe continued to give the Buff and Blue faithful reasons to cheer, attacking the Rams from start to finish in one of the most electric performances of his decorated career. He scored 11 of GW's first 15 points, had 19 by halftime and ultimately became the first Colonial since Tyler Cavanaugh last March to reach the 30-point mark.
Watanabe was aggressive hunting his shots without being out of control, energetic on both ends of the court and eager to pump up the crowd with a wave at every chance. Even his passes dripped with swagger on this night.
Each of those highlights was met with waving mini Japanese flags from the friends and family section behind GW's bench, which included his parents Kumi and Hideyuki, who were in Foggy Bottom to see him play for the first time since the opening weekend of his sophomore season.
"That means a lot to me," Watanabe said. "I have lots of good memories here, but that was the best game I've played in my GW career. I'm really glad my parents watched my best game in this building. I'm really glad that they came here, and I'm very proud of myself that I could show them my best game."
Not to mention all Watanabe's fans back home in Japan. A handful of journalists made the trip from his homeland to honor a career that they've been closely tracking every step of the way.
When it was over, Watanabe held court with the group talking about his dream Senior Night and the journey that led up to it, while his father proudly snapped pictures on his iPad.
"It was a great day for him, his family and Japanese basketball fans, too," said Takashi Aoki of J Sports, which broadcast the game in Japan. "A wonderful day."
Understandably, Watanabe has done a lot of looking back lately, remembering all the hard work it's taken on and off the court to get to this spot. He's made a remarkable transformation since arriving in 2014 with little knowledge of English and a raw skillset to become a team leader and perhaps the top two-way player in the Atlantic 10.
Watanabe thought about all the time he's spent in Smith Center, whether in study hall drilling the language or on the court perfecting his game long after others had gone home. He wanted so badly to have the proper send-off in the building, and he delivered it to the delight of those closest to him.
Afterward, Watanabe called his teammates his brothers and thanked them for their support in all of his success, while Joseph fought back tears talking about how perfectly it all came together.
"I wish you guys could understand how much he gave and how much he continues to give on a regular basis," Joseph said. "It's unbelievable."
Nothing could spoil this night. Not even a couple stitches.
Watanabe took a hard fall and banged his chin on the court after skying for a tremendous block on Fordham's Will Tavares in transition late in the first half. He emerged from the locker room at halftime sporting a bandage and afterward headed to the trainer's room to get stitched up.
All things considered, Watanabe figures that scar will make for a heckuva souvenir.
"Even this is great," Watanabe said, pointing toward his chin. "This is going to be a great memory. I'll always remember my Senior Night I got cut and I got stitches, so it's great."
What an incredible journey it's been. We're so fortunate you're forever a Colonial. Thank YOU, Yuta. pic.twitter.com/UXUoIwYnJq
-- GW Men's Basketball (@GW_MBB) March 1, 2018
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