Vertrail Vaughns will experience the end he envisioned for his college basketball career today in a lot of ways.
The former Mesquite standout will play in front of his family and friends at the Super Pit one last time when the Mean Green takes on Tulsa at 7 p.m.
That opportunity is one of the key reasons Vaughns transferred to UNT from George Mason and joined a group of seniors whose time in college basketball has been anything but conventional.
Vaughns spent four seasons at George Mason before transferring for his senior year to UNT, where he joined fellow seniors Alzee Williams and Brandan Walton. Williams redshirted his first season at UNT because of an injury and is in his fifth year in the program, while Walton left his native California for a journey that included a stop in Wyoming and a medical redshirt season at UNT.
“Some of our guys have taken the road less traveled,” UNT coach Tony Benford said. “Vertrail wanted to get back close to home, which has worked out. Brandan has had a solid career despite the injuries he had to overcome last year. He has done a great job and is a great leader.”
UNT has leaned on the trio throughout an up-and-down season.
The Mean Green struggled at times early in the year, got back on track during a four-game winning streak in December and early January, lost eight of 10, rebounded with a four-game winning streak and then was hammered 74-54 in its last outing by UTEP.
UNT (15-14, 6-9 Conference USA) enters tonight’s game needing to beat a Tulsa team it lost to by 31 points last month and get some help to finish among the top nine teams in the league and receive a first-round bye in the conference tournament.
A UNT win combined with a Charlotte loss to Marshall would give UNT the No. 9 seed. A UNT win, a Charlotte loss and a UAB loss to Middle Tennessee would give UNT the No. 8 seed.
Walton played for UNT during the 2011-12 season when the Mean Green made it to the Sun Belt tournament final. Williams was a member of UNT’s 2010 NCAA tournament team and helped lead the Mean Green to the Sun Belt tournament final in each of the next two seasons.
UNT hasn’t been the same since. The Mean Green finished 12-20 last year and is in danger of posting back-to-back losing seasons for the first time since the 2002-03 and 2003-04 campaigns.
“It’s been tough not winning,” Walton said. “I am keeping my head held high and focusing on the next game. That is what we are hoping for in our last game — a win.”
No matter what happens in that last game, Walton and Vaughns are happy with the way their college basketball careers have turned out.
Vaughns grew up in Mesquite before heading to George Mason, where he started 33 games and averaged 8.8 points as a sophomore. He decided to transfer for a number of reasons, including the opportunity to earn his master’s degree while studying digital communications and marketing at UNT.
“I made a good decision to leave George Mason and come here for a lot of reasons, including academics,” Vaughns said. “I got the opportunity to meet a lot of people in the graduate program who have helped me.”
Walton came not only for the academic opportunities at UNT, but also for the chance to finish his college basketball journey at a Division I school, a dream he chased all over the country.
The Compton, Calif., native left his home state and spent two years at Casper College before transferring to UNT. He played a significant role right away, averaging 8.8 points per game in the 2011-12 season.
Walton injured his foot in UNT’s season opener last year, took a medical redshirt and returned for a second chance to play his senior season.
Williams had the biggest impact of all among the trio and enters his final home game ranked 18th in program history with 1,033 career points.
“It was worth the journey,” Walton said. “I wouldn’t change it for the world. Going to Wyoming helped me grow up because it was the first time I was away from home. I had to make decisions on my own. When I came here I was able to interact with so many people, especially the coaches with [former UNT head coach Johnny] Jones and, when he left, coach Benford and [UNT assistant Rob] Evans. They are inspirational influences in my life.”
UNT will take time out tonight to recognize those seniors before their final home game, which will bring a flood of emotions for each.
“There will be excitement, happiness and also sadness because it’s coming to an end,” Walton said. “I have built good relationships with my teammates and coaches. They will still be there, but being around them every day and joking around, those things are coming to an end.”
BRETT VITO can be reached at 940-566-6870 and via Twitter at @brettvito.