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Women’s Assistant Basketball Coach Nikki McCray-Penson Dies at 51

Rutgers Athletics

Rutgers University announced today that assistant coach and Women’s Basketball Hall of Famer Nikki McCray-Penson has passed away at the age of 51. No cause of death has been released but McCray-Penson previously battled breast cancer in 2013 and cited “unspecified health concerns she hoped were behind her,” when she resigned from the Mississippi State head coaching position in 2021, according to ESPN. She was set to enter her second season as an assistant coach for the Scarlet Knights. She had a 10-year-old son with her husband, Thomas Penson.

“Today is deeply sad and emotional day for everyone who knew and loved Nikki. Nikki had a big smile and an even bigger heart. She was full of life, energy, and was so much fun to be around. Nikki touched the lives of many because she made it her mission to uplift others and help them achieve whatever dreams and goals they expressed. She was so devoted to her husband and son, and still gave all of herself to everyone in the program. We will miss her dearly but will keep Nikki’s memory alive in our hearts.”

Rutgers head coach Coquese Washington

Born December 17th, 1971 in Collierville, TN, McCray-Penson stayed home and played guard for the University of Tennessee Lady Vols and legendary head coach Pat Summitt from 1991-95. McCray-Penson would go on to play 8 seasons in the WNBA with the Washington Mystics, Indiana Fever, Phoenix Mercury, San Antonio Silver Stars and Chicago Sky. She was named to three WNBA All-Star teams (in 1999, 2000, and 2001) and scored 2,550 career points (courtesy Wikipedia).

McCray-Penson also won two gold medals in the summer Olympics - the first in 1996 and second in 2000, where she competed with teammate and current South Carolina head coach Dawn Staley. Staley hired McCray-Penson as an assistant coach on her first staff when she took over at South Carolina in 2008. McCray-Penson worked with the Gamecocks from 2008-2017, helping lead the program to its first NCAA championship in her final season (courtesy Greenville News).

“It’s hard to think about Nikki’s passing because all I can see is how fully she lived. From her days as a brash rookie in USA Basketball to becoming my friend and colleague to the way she mentored young players, Nikki did everything with her whole heart. Every teammate, every coach, every player who spent time with her knew first that she cared about them as a person, and everything else came from that place. Her presence was something you could feel before you saw her because she had such light, such positive energy inside her no matter what was going on. I am heartbroken that cancer has taken that light from us, but I know that she would want us to be the ones to carry it on in her absence. I pray we all have the strength to do that for her and her son Lil Thomas.”

Statement from South Carolina Women’s Basketball Head Coach Dawn Staley (former USA teammate and coaching colleague)

She went on to serve as the head coach at Old Dominion from 2017-20 and Mississippi State in 2020-21 before resigning due to health concerns before joining the Scarlet Knights as an assistant coach in 2022-23.

McCray-Penson touched many people in her lifetime, as evidenced by the outpouring of love and emotions across social media.

“My heart is so heavy. One of the most beautiful souls I’ve ever met. The one who genuinely went out their way to understand me when I was so misunderstood. The one who was always there. You fought so long and hard, and I am so grateful to have known you. I love you. Rest easy.”

Tennessee Forward Rickea Jackson (previously played for Nikki McCray-Penson at Mississippi State)

Among her hall of fame inductions, she was named to the National High School Hall of Fame (2015), Greater Knoxville Sports Hall of Fame (2014), Women’s Basketball Hall of Fame (2012) and University of Tennessee Athletics Hall of Fame (2004). She was honored by the Tennessee Sports Hall of Fame in 2001 as its Female Professional Athlete of the Year. Her additional honors include Shelby County School Education Foundation Inductee (2007), Basketball Beyond Borders representative (2005-present), WNBA Community Assist Award winner (2005), First Lady Laura Bush Book Club member (2001), member of the President’s Council of Physical Fitness & Sports (1998-2000), previous Prevent Child Abuse America board member and keynote speaker for the Library of Congress Women’s History Month (courtesy University of Tennessee Athletics).

I can only imagine the loss coach Washington and her staff are feeling and hope that the university finds an appropriate way to celebrate her lifetime achievements this coming season.