Legacy of Excellence: Former ODU Women’s Basketball Coach Nikki McCray-Penson Dies at 51

Nikki McCray-Penson, the former head coach of the women’s basketball team at Old Dominion University and a two-time Olympic gold medalist, passed away on Thursday at the age of 51.

Nikki Mccray

During her tenure, McCray-Penson guided the Monarchs to an impressive 53-40 overall record across three seasons. Particularly noteworthy was the 2019-20 season, where under her leadership, ODU achieved a remarkable 24-6 record and appeared poised for an NCAA tournament berth. Unfortunately, the season was abruptly halted due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

“I am saddened to learn of the passing of my former teammate and friend Nikki McCray-Penson,” 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 be lasting. She was a tremendous person, teammate, coach and mentor to me and hundreds of other women in the game of basketball. She will be deeply missed.”

Following a challenging debut season in 2017-2018, where the team posted an 8-23 record, McCray-Penson spearheaded a remarkable turnaround for the Monarchs. Under her guidance, they experienced a significant improvement, concluding the subsequent season with a commendable 21-11 record and securing a coveted spot in the WNIT tournament.

In 2013, McCray-Penson received a breast cancer diagnosis. However, after undergoing surgery, chemotherapy, and radiation treatments, she successfully overcame the illness and was declared cancer-free after nine months.

Tragically, The Tennessean reported on Friday that McCray-Penson had passed away, as she had been courageously battling a recurrence of cancer alongside a bout of pneumonia.

“I am heartbroken getting the news that we lost Nikki McCray,” said ODU great and Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Famer Nancy Lieberman. “She was an incredible mom and a great in our game from Tennessee to USA Olympic teams and then taking her knowledge and kindness to the coaching ranks. We are all better for having known her and Nikki being in our lives. The ODU Monarch family is hurting today for this beautiful woman. May she rest in paradise.”

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

McCray-Penson’s professional basketball career spanned nine seasons in the WNBA, following a two-year tenure in the American Basketball League (ABL). Her impressive journey began as she led the Columbus Quest to victory in the 1996-97 ABL championship during her rookie season, earning the esteemed title of the league’s MVP.

In 1998, McCray-Penson transitioned to the Washington Mystics in the WNBA, where she showcased her skills as the team’s leading scorer for the first two seasons. Her remarkable performances earned her three consecutive appearances in the WNBA All-Star game during her four-year stint in Washington.

Continuing her career, McCray-Penson went on to play five more seasons in the WNBA. She spent two seasons with the Indiana Fever, followed by one season each with the Phoenix Mercury, San Antonio Silver Stars, and Chicago Sky. McCray-Penson concluded her professional journey at the end of the 2006 season, retiring with a career total of 2,528 points, placing her 24th on the WNBA’s all-time scoring list.

Subsequently, she assumed a similar role at the University of South Carolina, where she made a significant impact. Under her guidance, the Gamecocks achieved an impressive feat of earning four consecutive No. 1 seeds in the NCAA Tournament, with the first one secured in 2014. Remarkably, the team advanced to the Sweet 16 in five out of six seasons and attained their inaugural NCAA Final Four appearance in 2015.

The 2016-2017 season proved to be a pinnacle for South Carolina, as they concluded the campaign with their highest-ever national ranking. Notably, they secured the coveted No. 1 position in the USA Today Coaches Poll, solidifying their outstanding achievements during that season.

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