Watanabe's Complete Performance Sparks Men's Basketball
The senior led GW with 26 points, but also turned in his best defensive performance of the year
By Eric Detweiler, GW Athletics Communications
Yuta Watanabe has earned a reputation as one of the top defenders in the Atlantic 10, using his unique combination of length and athleticism to frustrate opponents of all sizes and skill sets.
Regardless of the assignment, Watanabe's ability to lock down is key to George Washington's plan defensively. Which is why head coach Maurice Joseph paused a recent film session to spotlight a few plays where his star fell short of that lofty standard.
"I know what Yuta's buttons are, and when I want to rev him up, I know how to rev him up," Joseph said. "He takes a lot of pride in his defense, so I called him out."
Consider that challenge accepted.
Watanabe got it done on both ends in Wednesday's 73-66 win over Morgan State on International Night at Charles E. Smith Center. The senior from Japan posted a career-high 26 points on 9-of-16 shooting and added seven rebounds, five steals and three blocks to help the Colonials hold off the Bears and snap a three-game losing streak.
Watanabe provided a defensive spark, whether he was causing havoc at the top of GW's 1-3-1 zone or shadowing Morgan State's 5-foot-11 point guard Martez Cameron. It was a vintage effort the Colonials needed to wipe out a second-half deficit and pull away for the victory.
"I just wanted to prove that I'm still the best defender in the league," Watanabe said.
Throughout his GW career, Watanabe has continued to make steady progress as a two-way force. The Colonials needed him to make another leap, leading a young squad packed with newcomers to Joseph's system.
Through seven games, the results have been promising. Watanabe's points (14.7), rebounds (7.3) and blocks (2.6) are all up. His 38.6 minutes per game lead the A-10.
"It's a tough load to shoulder, but that's the hand he's been dealt," Joseph said. "That's what he's prepared for. That's what he stayed over the summer to work for. That's what he wants."
Against Morgan State, Watanabe delivered his best performance yet.
Watanabe drilled his first shot -- a contested 3-pointer from the left wing -- to become the 49th Colonial to reach 1,000 career points and kept on going.
His career offensive effort leaned heavily on his calling cards: perimeter marksmanship and graceful finishes in transition. He also showcased his ability to scrap inside with a pair of tough putbacks in the second half with the Colonials trailing.
Watanabe's final basket came on a 3-ball with 6:07 left that pushed a two-point lead to five. He threw up his hands in disbelief after banking it in from the top of the key. The Bears never got that close again.
"As soon as I took the shot, I was like `Oh my god,'" Watanabe said with a chuckle. "Luckily, the shot went in. Honestly, that was a lucky shot."
On the other end, Watanabe might have been even better. His defensive energy set the tone for the Colonials, especially down the stretch.
Watanabe spent most of the opening half matched up on Morgan State's top scorer LaPri McCray-Pace, who finished scoreless on 0-for-9 shooting.
After halftime, Joseph switched to a 1-3-1 zone. That look -- boosted by Watanabe's length out top -- disrupted the Bears and helped GW erase a 10-point deficit.
When the Colonials went back to man-to-man, Watanabe was checking Cameron. Morgan State's point guard had shown the ability to get to the basket all night before Watanabe stepped in and maximized his 10-inch height advantage.
Fittingly, Watanabe celebrated his final offensive highlight with an equally impressive defensive play. After he banked in the late 3-pointer, he immediately raced down court and rejected Cameron's shot out of bounds to the home crowd's delight.
"Simply, I thought I had to work harder than I did in the first half," said Watanabe, whose five steals were also a career high. "I decided to work harder on the defensive end, and that's why I think I played well tonight."
After the victory, Joseph gathered his players in the locker room and singled out his star again.
This time, Watanabe had delivered precisely what the Colonials needed from him, and the coach wanted to make sure everybody knew it.
"I was just telling the guys that I was here when Yuta stepped on campus as a freshman with no idea what was going on," Joseph said. "He's kept building every single day and turned himself into a pretty special player, so I'm really proud of him."
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