Former ODU women’s basketball coach Nikki McCray-Penson dies at 51

Former Old Dominion University women’s basketball head coach and two-time Olympic gold medalist Nikki McCray-Penson passed away on Thursday. She was 51 years old.

“It is a challenge to put into words how devastating the news of Nikki McCray-Penson’s death is for all of us associated with ODU. Nikki made a lasting impact on the game of basketball around the world as she achieved worldwide success.” This is the biggest step I’ve taken as both an athlete and a coach,” said Wood Selig, ODU’s athletics director. “From the first day I met Nikki, I knew she would have the same vision as a coach. Will get the success that he had as an athlete. Her enthusiasm, passion, enthusiasm and love for the game brought out the best in everyone around her and inspired everyone to work hard. Achieve the high standards of excellence that Nikki has always aspired to. It is a great shame that the world and future student-athletes will never have the pleasure of watching Coach McCray-Penson complete his coaching career. Nikki’s husband, Thomas, and son, Thomas Jr., are in the thoughts and prayers of all Monarchs at this time. The ODU women’s basketball program is better today because of the many contributions Nikki and her family made during their time in Norfolk.”

McCray-Penson coached the Monarchs to a 53–40 record over three seasons. In the 2019–20 season, McCray-Penson led ODU to a 24–6 record and a possible spot in the NCAA Tournament before the season was called off due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

“I am saddened to learn of the passing of my former teammate and friend, Nikki McCray-Penson,” said the ODU women’s basketball head coach. Delisha Milton-Jones said. “Nikki courageously fought hard for others on and off the court, and her legacy will live on. She was a tremendous person, teammate, coach and mentor to me and hundreds of other women in the game of basketball. She will be greatly missed Will come.”

After going 8–23 in his first season in 2017–18, McCray-Penson led a turnaround that saw the Monarchs finish 21–11 and earn a bid to the WNIT.

Following the 2019–20 season, McCray-Penson accepted the head coaching position at Mississippi State. He coached the Bulldogs for one season before stepping down for health reasons. She returned to coaching for the 2022–23 season and completed her first season as an assistant coach at Rutgers.

She was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2013. But after nine months of surgery, chemotherapy and radiation, he was declared cancer-free.

On Friday, The Tennessean reported that he died after battling a recurrence of cancer and pneumonia.

“It breaks my heart to receive the news that we have lost Nikki McCray,” said ODU great and Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Famer Nancy Lieberman. And kindness to the coaching ranks. We are all feeling better having him and Nikki in our lives. The ODU Monarch family grieves for this beautiful lady today. May he rest in heaven.”

McCray-Penson played nine seasons in the WNBA after a two-year stint in the American Basketball League. As a rookie, he led the Columbus Quest to the 1996–97 ABL Championship and was named the league’s MVP. After joining the Washington Mystics of the WNBA in 1998, McCray-Penson was the team’s leading scorer in her first two seasons and played in the WNBA All-Star Game three times in her four years in Washington.

McCray-Penson played five more seasons in the WNBA, two with the Indiana Fever and one each with the Phoenix Mercury, San Antonio Silver Stars and Chicago Sky, before retiring at the end of the 2006 season. With 2,528 points, she finished her career 24th on the WNBA’s career scoring list.

McCray-Penson helped lead the US team to Olympic gold medals in 1996 and 2000.

In her four-year college career while playing for the late Pat Summitt at Tennessee, McCray-Penson led the Lady Vols to a 122–11 record, three SEC regular-season titles, two conference tournament championships and four NCAA tournament appearances. McCray-Penson was named an All-American and SEC Player of the Year in his junior and senior years.

McCray-Penson graduated from Tennessee in 1995 with a Bachelor of Science in Education.

After an 11-year professional playing career, McCray-Penson spent two seasons as assistant head coach at Western Kentucky, where Selig was athletic director. She helped lead the Lady Toppers to a 49–17 record, which included an appearance in the WNIT semifinals and a Sun Belt Tournament title in 2006–07 and a berth in the NCAA Tournament in 2007–08.

She then moved to South Carolina in the same capacity, helping the Gamecocks earn four consecutive NCAA Tournament No. 1 seeds, the program’s first in 2014. The Gamecocks reached their first-ever NCAA Finals, appearing in the event’s Sweet 16 in five of six seasons. Four in 2015. South Carolina achieved its best ever final national ranking in the 2016–17 season and was ranked No. 1 in the USA Today Coaches Poll.

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