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Tuesday, March 18, 2008|My first taste of San Diego college basketball was the old Cabrillo Classic on Dec. 23, 1978 at the Sports Arena.

San Diego State was playing No. 7-ranked Kansas, a team that featured McDonald’s All-American point guard Darnell Valentine and a 7-footer that would play in the NBA, Paul Mokeski.

Before the game, I was cautioned that San Diego basketball wasn’t very good. Since I had recently graduated from Michigan State and was accustomed to watching Magic Johnson and the Big Ten, I accepted the advice with a certain amount of elitism.

Next thing I know, the Aztecs were on their way to upsetting Kansas, 81-69.

SDSU had a young point guard named Tony Gwynn who you might know from his baseball career; two guys that would have brief stints in the NBA, Kim Goetz and the late Steve Malovic; and a future Olympic silver medalist in beach volleyball, Mike Dodd.

Goetz, called “The Long Ranger,” played before the 3-point field goal rule was adopted. There’s no telling how many points he would have scored if he played in a different era.

But most of all, the Aztecs had a talent named Percy Gilbert, a sculpted 6-foot-5 junior from San Diego High built like a tight end.

Early in the game, Mokeski was coming down the middle of the lane with the ball raised high for a monster dunk. But suddenly Gilbert propelled himself upward and outward from beneath the basket.

The hometown kid not only blocked the dunk, with his strength he pushed the ball back into Mokeski’s face and he tumbled to the floor. It remains one of the best basketball plays I’ve ever seen.

Unfortunately, Gilbert’s off-the-court problems prevented him from living up to his immense talent. He didn’t even finish the season.

John Kentera of XX Radio tells me that then-SDSU quarterback Mark Halda, his long-time friend from Torrey Pines High, begged Gilbert to come out for football.

Gilbert never did, but he still got a shot with the Seattle Seahawks as a free agent. If he had the maturity of Antonio Gates — the Kent State basketball honorable mention All-American turned Pro Bowl tight end for the Chargers — he probably would have made it.

I bring all this up because March Madness is here, and I haven’t enjoyed a San Diego college basketball season as much since 1978-79 as this year’s men’s and women’s teams at San Diego State and the University of San Diego.

Maybe San Diego was never really as bad of a basketball town as its reputation. Maybe the two local colleges never put the resources into the sport that they are now enjoying the rewards.

USD’s men’s and women’s teams both advanced to the NCAA Tournament this week with automatic bids from winning the West Coasts Conference Tournament at Jenny Craig Pavilion.

San Diego State’s men, handicapped by injuries and a key suspension of Kyle Spain, settled for an NIT bid, but any team with Lorrenzo Wade on it is fun to watch.

And look out for San Diego State’s women, which advanced to the Mountain West Conference final with two upsets before falling to New Mexico. Redshirt freshman Allison Duffy of El Capitan High and true freshman Paris Johnson of San Diego High will dominate this conference as twin towers before they’re done.

USD’s NCAA-bound teams feature three homegrown players:

  • Junior Gyno Pomare, a two-time All-West Coast Conference pick from El Camino High in Oceanside, is one of the best big men in the West. The 6-foot-8, 240-pound junior leads the Toreros in rebounding (7.4) and is second in scoring (13.7). 
  • Senior Amanda Rego (5-10), a two-time All-WCC pick from Mission Bay High, led the nation in assists as a junior and already owns school career records for assists (651, 5.9) and steals (291, 2.6). 
  • Junior Amber Sprague (6-5), also a two-time All-WCC pick from Mission Bay, leads the team with 15.5 points and 8.8 rebounds a game. She’ll be an All-American candidate next year and is within range of the school’s career scoring record.

I asked the players about their decisions to stay home, even though USD didn’t have a history of basketball success on the men’s or women’s side when they committed.

“Staying home means a lot more to me now after winning a championship,” Pomare said. “It was a great winning at home and having people come down to the game.”

Sprague, who will be an All-American candidate next year, more than the others turned down big-time offers. 

“As much as we are home, we’re away from home,” Sprague said. “San Diego is a big enough city that you can distance yourself. I saw a lot of old friends when we won the championship. I have no regrets about staying home.”

The two best current college players from San Diego high schools are Stanford senior Candice Wiggins (La Jolla Country Day) and Arizona sophomore Chase Budinger (La Costa Canyon).

You can’t blame Wiggins for wanting a Stanford education and basketball career or Budinger for picking Arizona to play for coaching legend Lute Olsen.

But improving basketball programs might make the choice more difficult for a future Candice Wiggins or Chase Budinger to not consider USD or SDSU.

Who knows? There might even be a Percy Gilbert out there, but hopefully with Antonio Gates’ athletic wisdom.

Tom Shanahan is voiceofsandiego.org‘s sports columnist. He is the media coordinator for the San Diego Hall of Champions and an occasional writer for Chargers.com. You can e-mail him at toms@sdhoc.com. Or send a letter to the editor.

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