George Washington’s hopes of reaching the Atlantic 10 quarterfinals were already in peril late Thursday when the Colonials’ most important player, Yuta Watanabe, was injured driving to the basket.
Plenty of time remained in a close game against Saint Louis, but with the Billikens enjoying a resurgent second half and GW fading after an impressive first half, the Colonials were in deep trouble without their standout senior.
The sixth-seeded Billikens shot 67 percent after intermission to subdue the No. 11 Colonials, 70-63, at Capital One Arena. They will face third-seeded Davidson (18-11) at 8:30 p.m. Friday.
Jalen Johnson made four three-pointers and scored 18 points for the Billikens (17-15). Jair Bolden led the Colonials (15-18) with 16, while Bo Zeigler and Terry Nolan Jr. had 13 apiece.
With time fading, Watanabe was a helpless bystander at the end of the bench, his chin bandaged from an earlier blow and his right ankle unable to support his weight. When the Colonials huddled during a late timeout, two staff members assisted him so he could join his teammates.
March Madness: Toughest defeats in NCAA tournament history View GraphicMarch Madness: Toughest defeats in NCAA tournament history
X-rays were negative, and he was diagnosed with a sprain.
After the game, in a hallway outside the locker room, his ankle was wrapped in ice and his eyes filled with tears as seven Japanese journalists formed a semi-circle to collect his thoughts.
Later, in English, he said: “It’s not the way I wanted to go out. I’m really frustrated, but after I got injured, I was watching my teammates from the bench and they never gave up.”
Watanabe, GW’s leading scorer and the conference’s defensive player of the year, was injured with 7:43 left and his team trailing by two points. He had stolen the ball and was racing toward the basket when he absorbed contact and rolled the ankle. He writhed in pain and needed assistance leaving the court.
After receiving treatment on the bench, he hobbled to a tunnel and tested the ankle. But the pain was too much and he doubled over, motionless.
“I told my trainer that I want to play, but he said, ‘Prove to me you can run and you can jump,’ ” Watanabe said. “I failed. I couldn’t.”
He finished with 11 points on 3-of-9 shooting.
“In my time here, certainly no one has given more to the program than Yuta Watanabe does, especially when the lights are off and after hours when no one’s watching,” Coach Maurice Joseph said.
Added Bolden: “He’s a benchmark for all of us to reach. We thank him for that. . . . I have never played with a guy in my years that has done so much in a game and off the court and in the locker room.”
After the injury, Bolden tied the game at 52 with a three-pointer at the 7:10 mark. But Davell Roby scored six points, and Javon Bess hit a three-pointer for a 61-52 edge. The Colonials never recovered.
“Guys like me are supposed to step up when your best player goes down,” Bolden said. “But we weren’t able to get it done for Yuta, and that’s tough.”
The night began well as the Colonials led 32-21 at intermission. The game was tight midway through the half, but GW had almost everything go its way during a 14-3 surge.
Bolden made a three-pointer as the shot clock was about to expire and Watanabe salvaged a busted possession by making a 12-foot floater an instant before the deadline.
Zeigler was all over the place, using his quickness and leaping ability to score inside and clear rebounds at both ends.
The Billikens shot 25 percent and made one field goal in the last 10 minutes. They weren’t very good at the free throw line either, converting 9 of 16.
The game quickly turned in the Billikens’ favor after intermission. They found their range and GW struggled against a 1-3-1 zone trap.
“We just didn’t execute the way we did in the first half,” Joseph said, “and we let their zone makes us stagnant.”
The Colonials stayed close, but Watanabe’s departure damaged their chances.
“For the most part, we stayed the course,” Joseph said. However, “you’ve got to be able to make shots and capitalize on those opportunities, and we simply didn’t when we needed to.”
● RICHMOND 81, DUQUESNE 68: Jacob Gilyard, a 5-foot-9 freshman guard, scored 20 points and the No. 7 Spiders (12-19) shot 57 percent in routing the No. 10 Dukes (16-16).
Richmond will carry a three-game winning streak into Friday’s 6 p.m. quarterfinal against second-seeded St. Bonaventure (24-6). The Bonnies won the regular season encounter, 97-88, Feb. 10 in Olean, N.Y.
Gilyard made three three-pointers and fell three points shy of his career high. Nick Sherod added 17 points. Rene Castro-Caneddy had 17 for the Dukes, who lost eight of their last nine.
The Spiders shot 61 percent and made six three-pointers in forging a 41-33 halftime lead. The margin ballooned to 19 midway through the second half in the first blowout of the tournament.