Nikki McCray-Penson: Tragic Passing of Former WNBA Star and ODU Women’s Basketball Coach Nikki McCray-Penson at Age 51

Nikki McCray-Penson
RIP: Nikki McCray-Penson

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

"It's 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 had a lasting impact on the game of basketball across the globe as she enjoyed the pinnacle of success on the world's biggest stages both as an athlete and a coach," ODU Director of Athletics Wood Selig said. "From the first day I met Nikki McCray-Penson, I knew she would experience the same success as a coach that she experienced as an athlete. Her drive, passion, enthusiasm and love for the game made everyone around her better and motivated everyone to work harder to achieve the high standard of excellence that Nikki always expected. It is such a shame that the world and future student-athletes will never get to enjoy coach McCray-Penson fulfilling her coaching career. Nikki's husband, Thomas, and son, Thomas Jr., are in all Monarchs’ thoughts and prayers at this time. The ODU women's basketball program is better today because of the many contributions made by Nikki and her family while they were here in Norfolk."

Nikki McCray-Penson coached the Monarchs for three seasons, with a record of 53-40. In the 2019-20 season, she led ODU to a 24-6 record and a likely berth in the NCAA Tournament before the season was canceled due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

“I am saddened by the news of the passing of my former teammate and friend Nikki McCray-Penson,” said DeLisha Milton-Jones, the head coach of ODU women’s basketball. “Nikki fought hard on and off the court for others, and her legacy will be long-lasting. She was an extraordinary person also a leader, a coach and a mentor to me and she was countless other women in basketball. She will be deeply missed.”

After a challenging first season with an 8-23 record in 2017-18, McCray-Penson brought about a turnaround that saw the Lady Monarchs finish with a 21-11 record and earn a bid to the WNIT tournament.

Following the 2019-20 season, McCray-Penson took over as the head coach of Mississippi State. She returned to coaching for the 2022-23 season and she finished her first season as the head coach at Rutgers.

In 2013, Nikki McCray-Penson was diagnosed with breast cancer. But after undergoing surgery, chemotherapy and radiation, she was declared cancer-free ninth months later.

On Friday, the Tennessee Lady Vols Basketball Hall of Famer Nancy Lieberman said, “We lost Nikki McGrady-Penson, and my heart is broken with the news.” “She was an incredible mom and a fantastic competitor for us from Tennessee to the USA Olympic team and then gaining knowledge through the game. And she was passionate about the coaching profession. We are all good because of her and Nikki’s presence in our lives. May she rest in heaven.”

Before joining the Women’s National Basketball Association, Nikki McCray-Penson played two seasons in the American Basketball League . As a rookie, she led the Columbus Quest to the 1996-97 ABL Championship and she was known as an MVP candidate in the league. She joined the WNBA’s Washington Mystics in 1998. She was scorered for the team in her first two seasons and she participated in the WNBA All-Star game three times in her four years in Washington.

Nikki McGrady-Penson has played five seasons in the WNBA including four with the Washington Mystics, and she has accumulated 2,528 points. she finished her career 24th on the WNBA’s career scoring list.

She helped to the American team to Olympic gold medals in 1996 and 2000.

At the end of her four-year collegiate career at Tennessee, Nikki McGrady-Penson finished with a record of 122-11, three regular-season SEC titles, two conference tournament championships and four appearances in the NCAA Tournament. McCray-Penson was named an All-American and SEC Player of the Year in her junior and senior years.

Nikki McCray-Penson received her Bachelor of Science degree in Education from Tennessee in 1995.

After an eleven-year professional playing career, Nikki McCray-Penson spent two seasons as an assistant coach at Western Kentucky, where she also served as the Athletic Director. She helped lead the Lady Toppers to a 49-17 record as an assistant head coach, including an appearance in the WNIT semifinals in the 2006-07 season and a berth in the San Belt Tournament championship and a WNIT berth in the 2007-08 season.

She then moved on to South Carolina, where she continued her success, helping the Gamecocks to their first-ever NCAA Tournament No. 1 seed and reaching the Sweet 16 in five out of six seasons, including a Final Four appearance in 2015.



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