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Nikki McCray-Penson — former Tennessee star and two-time Olympian — dies at 51

by Doug Feinberg —

Two-time Olympic gold-medalist and former Tennessee star Nikki McCray-Penson has died. She was 51.

McCray-Penson was an assistant women’s basketball coach at Rutgers last season and the school on Friday confirmed her death. She was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2013.

She joined coach Dawn Staley as an assistant at South Carolina from 2008-17. She was part of the Gamecocks’ first national championship in 2017. They were gold-medal teammates at the 1996 Atlanta and 2000 Sydney Olympics.

“It’s hard to think about Nikki’s passing because all I can see is how fully she lived,” Staley said in a statement. “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. … 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.”

McCray-Penson played at Tennessee from 1991-95 under Hall of Fame coach Pat Summitt. The point guard was a two-time SEC Player of the Year and a two-time Kodak All-America standout during her junior and senior seasons for the Lady Vols. The team reached the Final Four in 1995, losing in the championship game to undefeated Connecticut.

Nikki McCray-Penson (Photo: Library of Congress)

The 1996 U.S. Olympic team sparked the formation of the WNBA and ABL (American Basketball League 1996-98). She won MVP honors in 1997 while leading the ABL’s Columbus Quest to a championship before heading over to the WNBA. McCray-Penson was a three-time All-Star in that league while playing for the Washington Mystics.

She played until 2006 when she retired, with a stop in San Antonio along the way.

“She’s a competitor,” said New York Liberty coach Sandy Brondello, who coached her in San Antonio and played against her on the Australian Olympic team. “She just got out there and did it to the best of her ability. That’s really sad and tragic. Prayers go out to her family.”

McCray-Penson began her 16-year coaching career as an assistant at Western Kentucky for three seasons from 2006-2008. After South Carolina won the NCAA title, she became the head coach at Old Dominion in 2017, going 24-6 in 2020.

She spent one year at Mississippi State before stepping down for health reasons and returned as an assistant under coach Coquese Washington at Rutgers last season.

“Nikki had a big smile and an even bigger heart,” Washington said. “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.”

McCray-Penson was inducted into the Women’s Basketball Hall of Fame in 2012. She is survived by her husband Thomas and son Thomas Jr.


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