On Valentine’s Day, here’s the story of Side Pony and the Hall of Famer.
“I don’t know if it was on purpose or an accident when she’d be getting ready in the dark, but when she put her ponytail on, it was always on the side of her head,” former Wright State basketball star Vaughn Duggins said with a chuckle. “So we all called her was Side Pony.”
“That’s exactly what they called me,” agreed the former Maria Bennett, once a standout on the WSU women’s basketball team. “Some of those guys on the men’s team still call me that. But to this day I keep wearing my pony tail on the side of me head.”
Duggins said when he was a junior she came to WSU as a freshman: “When it came to the men’s basketball team, she couldn’t have been any more standoffish. She wouldn’t even say ‘Hi,’ to anybody.”
Maria said she and Vaughn were both dating someone else when they first met.
“I’d see her day after day after day at the Pavilion,” Duggins said of the WSU practice facility. “Finally I got the courage to ask her out.”
“He made a little comment like ‘Don’t you have to get back to your boyfriend?’” Maria said. “And I said, ‘Actually, I’m not dating anybody right now.’
“He asked me to prove it and give him my phone number.”
She did and as Vaughn now explains:
“We started hanging out and we kind of carved our own love and basketball story.”
And when it comes to sports, it’s turned out to be one to be the best tales of hoops and heart around here.
Maria played three years at Wright State before transferring to Northern Kentucky University as a senior. She started 40 of 94 games for the Raiders and still holds the program record for most threes (92) made in a season.
Vaughn became one of the all-time greats at Wright State.
Playing from 2006-11, he ended up the Raiders’ No. 3 all-time scorer with 1,777 points. He ranks in the top 10 in most offensive categories and is No. 1 in career minutes played.
His WSU days are filled with heroic moments, be it hitting the game-winning shots against Wisconsin Green Bay, Valparaiso and Milwaukee to scoring a career-high 31 points against Hofstra while wearing a back brace to temper the pain from a cracked vertebra that plagued him his senior season.
After he graduated, Duggins embarked on a seven-year pro career with teams in Germany and France. Once she finished at NKU, Maria joined him overseas and within a couple of years, they were married.
They now have two children — 3-year-old son, Gianni, and 16-month-old daughter Penelope — and after last season, Vaughn retired from pro ball and the family moved back to the U.S. and settled in Indianapolis.
Duggins is flipping houses with his dad – their company is called Father Son Flip – while he’s also planning to launch a motivational speaking business.
Maria is a personal trainer and also teaches English via a Skype-like set up to students in China.
But while they look ahead they’re also looking back – especially next weekend when Vaughn will be enshrined in the Wright State Hall of Fame along with track ace Cassandra Lloyd, the late swimming and diving coach Harold Miller and longtime public address announcer Gordie Wise.
The induction ceremony takes place at a Friday, Feb. 22 banquet and the new hall of famers will be presented to the public during the Raiders’ game against Youngstown State at the Nutter Center on Feb. 23.
“I have so many great memories on and off the court at Wright State,” Duggins said quietly. “It’s where I met my wife and now we have two great kids because of it.”
Maria felt the same: “When he told me, I couldn’t help but tear up. Wright State really, really holds a special place in our hearts.”
Making an impact at WSU
Coming out of Pendleton Heights High School just north of Indianapolis, Duggins was recruited by several schools and narrowed his choices to Butler and North Carolina-Wilmington, whose head coach was Brad Brownell and top assistant was Billy Donlon.
Duggins initially chose UNC-Wilmington because he felt a special connection with Donlon. Then came word Brownell had taken the WSU job and Donlon was going with him.
Initially disheartened, Duggins finally decided to follow them: “I came realize it didn’t matter if I was by the beach or in Fairborn, Ohio. If I was with Coach Brownell and Coach Donlon, something special was going to happen.”
And that very first season — as Duggins was named to the All Horizon League Newcomers Team — the Raiders won the Horizon League and went to the NCAA Tournament.
Although he was forced to take a medical redshirt season as a junior because of a broken ring finger, Duggins started 123 of the 130 games he played in and won All Horizon League honors each season.
At about the same time, Maria — who started all 33 games for WSU as a junior — wasn’t seeing eye to eye with new women’s coach Mike Bradbury and decided to transfer to NKU, which is near Cincinnati where she grew up and was then a Division II school so she could play immediately.
“It broke my heart to leave Wright State,” she said. “It still does.”
The couple lived part of the year in Europe until last spring when Vaughn finally retired following total ankle reconstruction surgery and their growing desire to have their kids closer to their grandparents and great grandparents.
“That was something that always lay on our hearts,” Maria said. “Everybody missed the kids so much. And Vaughn and I always kept the bigger picture in mind and what really mattered in life. We always promised ourselves we would never chose a basketball paycheck over happiness.”
Valentine’s Day rule
“I’ve never been a big Valentine’s Day girl,” Maria said, “but still, it’s another day where we can show the love we have for each other,
“But we have a rule. We can’t spend a dollar on each other. No money. “
Vaughn explained: “Our gifts to each other are something hand-made or something we do for each other. It’s a pretty rewarding tradition.”
Maria continued: “So it might be a letter or writing down our favorite memories. Maybe I run a bath for him or he’s cooking for me. Vaughn actually puts a lot of thought into it. Every day he really goes above and beyond for me. He always makes it very clear I’m his No. 1 priority. I do not lack for love, that’s for sure.”
Both agree their personalities are different. She’s outgoing and said especially in college –“Before I had a filter,” she laughed — she was quite opinionated.
Vaughn, she said, “is very laid back.
“He surprised me. Being the kind of athlete he was on the court – so confident and good – and being kind of the face of the men’s program then, I expected him to be conceited and cocky. Instead, he was sweet and kind and caring.”
Vaughn said Maria was like no one else he’d ever dated: “She was an outspoken, strong-willed woman. That was something new for me. I loved her passion and her laugh and especially her smile. The fact she was a basketball player was icing on the cake.”
She said Vaughn told her he has this Valentine’s Day “all planned for me, but I have no idea what.
“I know for a Christmas he got me a six-month membership to get a massage, but I haven’t used it because of the kids. And maybe there’s a letter or cooking or something. I don’t know.”
One thing it won’t be is a game of H-O-R-S-E.
“I don’t think we’ve ever played a full game of H-O-R-S-E,” Vaughn said. “It would have ended up in a fight for sure. She’s competitive and I’m competitive.
“And I’ll admit it. For sure, she’s a better shooter than me. She can beat me.”
Besides, how could he expect to win at H-O-R-S-E when he’s playing a Side Pony?