The Odds-Beater
Student-athlete Gyno Pomare helped bring USD to the Big Dance. Now he can't wait to go back.
by Nathan Dinsdale
GynoIllustration by Christina Ung

Next year. It’s less a literal designation of chronology than a universal salve that sports fans apply to stinging pride after their team falls short of aspirations. It’s renewed promise. It’s a fresh pair of socks. It’s “new car scent” hanging on the rearview.

There’s always next year. Just wait until next year. You’ll see.

Junior Gyno Pomare spent “three” next years — one as a redshirt — with the USD men’s basketball team, only to watch each season end unceremoniously before the madness of the NCAA Tournament began.

“At some point,” Pomare says, “you start to wonder how many chances you have left.”

That is, until this year.

It started in Honolulu on Nov. 9, when Pomare sank a game-winning free throw against Hawaii. It ended in Tampa, Fla., on March 23, when Pomare scored 20 points in a losing effort against Western Kentucky in the second round of the NCAA Tournament.

What happened in between — a win at Kentucky, a delirious run through the West Coast Conference Tournament and a dramatic upset of Connecticut — represented a seismic shift in the fortunes of USD basketball. And it’s hard to imagine any of it happening without Pomare.

Four days before the Toreros’ first NCAA Tournament game in five years, the 6-foot-8 (6-foot-11 if you count his mini-mushroom cloud of hair) forward could barely contain his excitement about not joining his fellow students for Spring Break.

Instead, Pomare was running sprints and muscling for position underneath the basket at the Jenny Craig Pavilion. A week earlier, the arena had been filled with more than 5,000 fans screaming themselves hoarse as the Toreros stunned WCC kingpin Gonzaga in the championship game of the conference tournament.

“That was a golden moment, just seeing that ‘00:0’ on the clock after beating Gonzaga and having everyone storm the court,” Pomare says, basking in the memory. “That’s something that I’ll always remember.”

Now the gym is eerily quiet. The stands are empty. The only sound comes from squeaking shoes and the exhortations of first-year head coach Bill Grier. In four days, the team will be in Tampa to play Connecticut in the first round of the NCAA Tournament. The odds are stacked heavily against the Toreros — just the way they like it.

“We knew from the start that we could beat anyone that we had on our schedule,” Pomare said. “Toward the end of the year, we really started to show that we could.”

During this St. Patrick’s Day practice at the JCP, the gravity of the task ahead is tugging Grier’s mouth down at the corners. Pomare is a different story.

“I think the guys on this team gravitate to him,” Grier says. “He’s got a great personality, he has a really witty sense of humor and he’s just a lot of fun to be around.”

While the two-time All-WCC selection exudes quiet determination on the court, it doesn’t take much to spark his megawatt grin. Toward the end of practice, junior guard Brandon Johnson fires a pass to Pomare near the three-point line. He lofts a high-arcing jump shot that sails through the net with a definitive snap.

Pomare sprints to mid-court, then stops and points to the empty stands, acknowledging the roar of a phantom crowd. His teammates chuckle. Grier just shakes his head.

“I like to push the envelope sometimes and see what I can get away with,” Pomare says with a mischievous grin. “That just comes from being a laid-back guy. I love to laugh and have fun, but I can definitely get serious when I need to.”

When it comes to stoicism, Pomare — who likes to listen to musicians whose monikers begin with “Lil” (Jon, Scrappy, Wayne, et al.) to pump himself up before games — was an Easter Island statue during the WCC Tournament.

The Toreros’ season appeared doomed late in their semifinal game against St. Mary’s on March 9. That’s when Pomare and Johnson sparked a jubilant celebration by carrying the team to a thrilling double-overtime win.

“Never at any point of that game did I say, ‘This is over,’” Pomare says. “But we knew we had to turn the game around or our season was done. Me and BJ just kept our cool, the team came together and we fought back.”

Less than 24 hours later, the pair was mobbed once again by a powder-blue maelstrom of fans after helping ignite the Toreros’ upset of Gonzaga. The duo was suddenly thrust into the media spotlight in the days that followed as conversation turned from celebrating the WCC win to how Pomare and USD could possibly compete with Connecticut and Hasheem Thabeet, the Huskies’ hulking 7-foot-3 center.

“7-foot-3, 8-foot-3” I don’t care — I’ll post him up,” Johnson (who needs high tops to break the six-foot barrier) told reporters with grinning bravado. Pomare was more measured, saying he’d do whatever he could to contain Thabeet and help the Toreros win.

“Brandon is a vocal leader, a nonstop talker,” Grier says. “Gyno is more of an E.F. Hutton type. He’s one of those guys who doesn’t say much. But when he does, they listen. He also leads through example, especially the way he played in the last few games of the season. When push came to shove and we needed to make a big play, he always stepped up and elevated his game.”

GynoIllustration by Christina Ung

Up until March 21, the closest Pomare had ever come to the NCAA Tournament was playing NCAA March Madness in the campus dorm room he shares with teammate Chris Lewis. (“I always play as USD,” Pomare says, “and I always put myself in the game.”)

After March 21, Pomare was the understated linchpin of the first USD team to ever win a game at the Big Dance. It was sophomore guard De’Jon Jackson who hit the game-winning shot in overtime to beat Connecticut, but it was Pomare — who held Thabeet to 14 points while scoring a game-high 22 points himself — that set the stage.

“Gyno, I thought, was the key player in the game,” Connecticut head coach Jim Calhoun said afterwards. “He gave them confidence when they needed confidence.”

Calhoun had previously referred to USD as “Gonzaga South” in hopes of ensuring that his team did not overlook the Toreros. It’s a compliment, in its own way, but Pomare is hopeful there will be a day when Gonzaga is referred to as “USD North.”

“When you look in the media guides, it’s always ‘WCC regular season champions: Gonzaga, Gonzaga, Gonzaga,’” Pomare says. “Then you look at the [WCC] Tournament champions and it’s always ‘Gonzaga, Gonzaga, Gonzaga.’ That’s what I want our program to become.”

As a standout player at El Camino High School in nearby Oceanside, Pomare had his choice of schools. He was recruited by USD, Boise State, Portland and Cal State Fullerton before he ultimately decided to stay close to home.

“I think I made the right choice,” Pomare says with a chuckle. “I’m very happy and blessed to be here at USD. I wouldn’t change it for anything.”

Not that it’s always been easy. In his four years at USD, Pomare has witnessed the ebb and flow of attendance at Torero games, and the ups and downs of the team’s win/loss record, as well as a “USD who?” response from the national sporting press.

“We’ve seen every scenario there is, in terms of the number of fans and the kind of media attention we get,” Pomare says. “We just try to keep ourselves grounded and focus on playing hard and playing together with the expectation that good things will eventually come our way.”

When the season first began, it looked like good things might be a long time coming. The team was just 6-8 when it arrived in Lexington to play the University of Kentucky on Dec. 29. But then the team racked up a monumental 81-72 win.

“Playing at Rupp Arena in front of 23,000 people — probably the biggest crowd we’ll ever see — was big,” Pomare says. “Winning at Rupp Arena in front of 23,000 people was huge. We knew that if we could keep our composure and play with poise there, we could do it anywhere.”

But it wasn’t until the Toreros began storming through the conference tournament — and left Connecticut in the dust — that the team started to become the proverbial Cinderella story.

“It’s nice to see USD on SportsCenter every once in a while,” Pomare says. “We’ve proven a lot this year, I think. But we don’t take what we hear — positive and negative — and let it affect us. We just work hard and play ball.”

When he isn’t playing ball, Pomare is cheering on the Lakers (“I’m a big-time Kobe fan”) watching movies (The Bucket List is a recent favorite), playing video games (“A lot of the guys on the team think they can beat me,” Pomare says, shaking his head) or inhaling Italian food (“I can eat just about anything, but I love pasta”).

Pomare’s towering frame can also frequently be found sprawled out on the bleachers at other Torero sporting events. He talks about fellow USD teams with the zeal of a diehard fan. In fact, hours before the WCC semifinal against St. Mary’s, Pomare was giddily rushing the court to celebrate the women’s basketball team punching their own ticket to the NCAA Tournament after knocking off Gonzaga.

“We have a lot of great programs here,” Pomare says. “A lot of them don’t always get the recognition they deserve, but we try to support each other as much as we can.”

Lewis, a redshirt sophomore, credits Pomare with helping him adjust to college life after he came to USD from Bedford, Texas. Pomare took Lewis under his wing both on and off the court, offering him pointers in practice and showing him around San Diego. Not that there isn’t the occasional downside to rooming with Pomare.

“He snores really loud,” Lewis laughs. “One time when we were on the road I took out my cell phone and recorded it for a good 10 seconds. Then I played it for him when he woke up.”

Beyond any laments about how Pomare can best improve his sleeping etiquette, Lewis has nothing but praise for his roommate’s skills on the basketball court.

“He’s not bigger than a lot of guys, but he’s very active and has great instincts around the basket,” Lewis says. “If he gets position on you, it’s hard to get around him. He’s tough to guard too, especially around the basket. If he can create space and get a shot off, he’s pretty automatic.”

Pomare is hopeful those skills will eventually translate into a professional basketball career, either in the U.S. or overseas. As a communications major and business minor, Pomare anticipates his eventual vocation will be in sports marketing or sports advertising (“Something to do with sports”) but he isn’t in any hurry to put down the ball and pick up a briefcase.

“Education is always first. That’s why I’m here — to get that degree,” he says. “But I love to play basketball, and I want to keep playing as long as I can. When that crossroads comes, I’ll have to make a decision. Right now, I’m just looking forward to another year of school and basketball.”

The Toreros finished the season at 22-14 after finally running out of gas against Western Kentucky. USD fans can find solace in the fact that the team will essentially return its entire roster next season. But the team’s success also means the Toreros will have to transition from being the hunter to being the hunted.

“I think it’s natural for people to look at this team and say they have a chance to do all this again next year,” Grier says. “But this is going to be more of a marked team. People are going to want a bigger piece of them because of what they accomplished. Our players will have to elevate their game or people will pass us by.”

But while Grier is cautious about the Toreros’ prospects for 2008-09, Pomare is confident the team can meet heightened expectations.

“We have everybody coming back, and I think that makes us very deadly,” Pomare says. “We know that we can step up and play in these big games. As long as we continue to improve and are hungry to win, this program is going to be in great shape.”

In other words, just wait until next year.

Joshua Hamilton Hiermona Tesfamicael Summer Buckley Gyno Pomare