Four years, 1,416 points, 142 blocks and 84 wins after arriving on campus, senior guard Yuta Watanabe said farewell to the Smith Center Wednesday night.
With 1:07 remaining on the clock and men’s basketball leading Fordham by 14 points, head coach Maurice Joseph subbed Watanabe off GW’s home floor one final time.
The Kagawa, Japan native began to cry and hug each one of his teammates and coaches as the arena’s crowd rose to their feet and began to chant his name in unison. His game-face was wiped away in a matter of seconds as he realized his time in a Colonials uniform was coming to an end.
“That means a lot to me, I was thinking last night, five years ago I was in Japan, couldn’t speak English, didn’t know anyone, didn’t know what to do I was just dreaming to come to the U.S. to play basketball,” Watanabe said. “I’m really proud of myself that I was able to do this.”
From the pregame festivities to the final minutes, Watanabe was at the center of the action. His mid-range jumper was the first basket of the night, and he finished with a career-high 31 points – more than double anyone else on the roster – on an 11-for-17 shooting performance.
But the dominant scoring effort on the night did not come as a shock based on his recent output. Five of his six 20-plus games of the season came over the past eight GW matchups. As the Colonials began to find their stride late in the season, winning four of their last five games, Watanabe has taken over as the team’s leader.
The development of Watanabe from a sixth man of an established program to the centerpiece of a young squad is one that Joseph – who has been on GW’s coaching staff since Watanabe arrived – said did not surprise him.
“He has grown as a man, he has grown as a player, as a defender,” Joseph said. “The maturation process has been unbelievable because he is such a great kid, such a selfless person, obviously an unbelievable player but it has been special.”
Since arriving at GW as a shy and skinny freshman, Watanabe has dealt with an aching back and sore wrists – enough to force him to wear tape every game. He has gone through the process of putting on muscle and been forced to learn English, but Joseph said he has never heard him complain.
Each season his points, rebounds and minutes have increased, and he has been relied on more as the Colonials’ primary defender.
“They don’t make them like Yuta, I credit his parents, his upbringing,” Joseph said. “He deserved that ovation, he deserved more to be honest with you, I’m just really happy for him.”
With at least two games of his career remaining, Watanabe has made sure Colonials fans will not forget his presence in the upcoming years. He has scored the 18th-most points, made the seventh-most three-pointers and recorded the third-most blocks and games played in program history.
Watanabe was one of four GW players to receive honors for playing their final regular season with experience on GW’s record-breaking 28-win team from 2015-16.
Senior guard Jack Granger, who started his first-career game against Fordham, also traveled with the NIT-winning squad – having served as a manager during his first three years with the team. He scored his only points of the season on a three-pointer against Richmond last week and has been a vocal member of the bench all year.
Graduate student forwards Patrick Steeves and Bo Zeigler transferred to GW before last season and this season, respectfully. The duo added a scoring threat and additional experience to the Colonials’ young frontcourt. Steeves was GW’s third-leading scorer – averaging 10.4 points per game on the year.
Currently sitting tied for ninth place of the Atlantic 10, GW will likely see its first postseason action in the conference tournament next Thursday at the Capital One Arena. Before that, the Colonials travel to Dayton Saturday and finish their season with a 3 p.m. game against the Flyers.
Although the group already celebrated their GW careers and took pictures with their families at center court, players said they expect to extend their college careers as long as possible.
“It is like a storybook ending, but we are not done,” Steeves said. “We have got to get another win over the weekend, help our seeding, and then do work in the tournament.”