Nikki McCray-Penson, 51, who used to coach the ODU women's basketball team, has died.
Nikki McCray-Penson, 51, who used to coach the ODU women’s basketball team, has died.

Nikki McCray-Penson, who won two gold medals at the Olympics and was the head coach of the women’s basketball team at Old Dominion University, died on Thursday. She turned 51.

“It’s hard to find the right words to describe how sad it is to hear about Nikki McCray-Penson’s death for all of us at ODU. Wood Selig, the director of athletics at ODU, said, “Nikki’s influence on basketball around the world will last for a long time because she reached the top of her game on the world’s biggest stages as both an athlete and a coach.”

“When I met Nikki for the first time, I knew she would be just as successful as a teacher as she was as an athlete. Her drive, passion, enthusiasm, and love for the game made everyone around her better and inspired everyone to work harder to reach the high level of excellence that Nikki always expected.

It’s a shame that coach McCray-Penson will never be able to finish her coaching job and give back to the world and future athletes. All of the Monarchs are thinking about and praying for Nikki’s husband, Thomas, and their son, Thomas Jr. The ODU women’s basketball team is better because Nikki and her family helped in many ways while they lived in Norfolk.

Over the course of three years, McCray-Penson led the Monarchs to a 53-40 record. Before the COVID-19 pandemic shut down the 2019-20 season, McCray-Penson led ODU to a 24-6 record and a sure spot in the NCAA tournament.

“I am saddened to hear that my former teammate and friend Nikki McCray-Penson has died,” said ODU women’s basketball head coach DeLisha Milton-Jones. “Nikki fought bravely for others on and off the court, and her impact will last for a long time. She was a great person, friend, coach, and role model for me and hundreds of other female basketball players. She will be missed very much.”

In her first season, the Monarchs went 8-23, but McCray-Penson helped them turn things around and go 21-11, which got them into the WNIT.

McCray-Penson has agreed to become the head coach at Mississippi State after the 2019-20 season. She led the Bulldogs for one season before giving up because of her health. She started teaching again in 2022-23 and just finished her first season as an assistant coach at Rutgers.

In 2013, she was told she had breast cancer. But nine months after surgery, chemotherapy, and radiation, she was told she no longer had cancer.

The Tennessean said on Friday that she had died while she was fighting a return of her cancer and a case of pneumonia.

“It breaks my heart to hear that Nikki McCray has died,” said Nancy Lieberman, who played for ODU and is in the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame. “She was a great mom and a great player in our game, from Tennessee to the USA Olympic teams. She then took her skills and kindness to the teaching ranks, where she helped a lot of players. We’re all better people for having known her and Nikki. The ODU Monarch family misses this beautiful woman very much today. May she find peace in heaven.”

After two years in the American Basketball League, McCray-Penson played for nine years in the Women’s National Basketball Association (WNBA). As a rookie, she led the Columbus Quest to the ABL title and was named the league’s most valuable player. McCray-Penson joined the Washington Mystics of the WNBA in 1998. In her first two years with the team, she was the top scorer and played in the WNBA All-Star game three times.

McCray-Penson continued to play in the WNBA for five more seasons, spending two with the Indiana Fever and one with each of the Phoenix Mercury, San Antonio Silver Stars, and Chicago Sky. At the end of the 2006 season, she retired. At the end of her career, she was 24th on the WNBA’s list of all-time scorers with 2,528 points.

In 1996 and 2000, McCray-Penson helped the U.S. team win gold medals at the Olympics.

McCray-Penson played for the late Pat Summitt at Tennessee for four years. During that time, she led the Lady Vols to a 122-11 record, three SEC regular-season wins, two conference tournament titles, and four trips to the NCAA tournament. In her junior and senior years, McCray-Penson was named an All-American and the SEC Player of the Year.

McCray-Penson got her Bachelor of Science in teaching from the University of Tennessee in 1995.

After playing in the pros for 11 years, McCray-Penson worked as an assistant head coach at Western Kentucky for two years while Selig was the sports director there. She helped lead the Lady Toppers to a 49-17 record, which included a trip to the WNIT semifinals in 2006-07 and a Sun Belt playoffs title and a spot in the NCAA playoffs in 2007-08.

She then went to South Carolina to do the same job. She helped the Gamecocks get four straight No. 1 seeds in the NCAA Tournament, the first of which came in 2014. The Gamecocks made their first NCAA Final Four in 2015. They had been to the Sweet 16 in five of the last six years. In the USA Today Coaches Poll, South Carolina finished the 2016–17 season with the best final national ranking of any team.

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