Nikki McCray-Penson, who was a star for the Tennessee Lady Vols in the mid-1990s and current Rutgers assistant coach, has died at the age of 51 the Rutgers women's basketball program announced Friday. No cause of death was known for McCray-Penson, who also spent time as the head coach at Mississippi State and Old Dominion.
During her time at Tennessee, McCray-Penson was named the SEC Player of the Year in 1994 and 1995. Over the course of her four years at the school, the star point guard put together averages of 12.4 points and 5.3 rebounds per contest, including averaging a career-best 16.3 points during her junior year in 1994.
McCray-Penson was part of three different Lady Vols teams that won the SEC regular-season championship. She also helped lead Tennessee to a pair of SEC Tournament titles as well as an appearance in the 1995 Final Four.
Following her decorated collegiate career, McCray-Penson spent time with the Washington Mystics, Indiana Fever, Phoenix Mercury, San Antonio Silver Stars, and Chicago Sky in the WNBA. The 5'11 point guard scored 2,550 career points in the WNBA while being selected to the WNBA All-Star Game on three different occasions (1999-2001). Prior to joining the WNBA, McCray-Penson also played in the now-defunct American Basketball League, and was named the Most Valuable Player during the 1996-97 campaign.
McCray-Penson also played for the United States women's Olympic team in both the 1996 and 2000 Summer Olympics, where she won a pair of gold medals.
Once her playing career came to a close, McCray-Penson spent 16 years coaching, and ended up being elected to the Women's Basketball Hall of Fame back in 2012. McCray-Penson got into coaching in 2006 when she served as an assistant coach at Western Kentucky. Two years later, McCray-Penson joined South Carolina as an assistant coach under legendary head coach Dawn Staley and coached under Staley from 2008-2017 where she was part of a national championship team in her final season with the Gamecocks.
Following her tenure under Staley, McCray-Penson landed head coaching jobs at Old Dominion and Mississippi State. She accumulated a 53-39 record during her time at Old Dominion before moving on to Mississippi State in 2020. McCray-Penson had a 10-9 record at Mississippi State during the 2020-21 season before she resigned due to health issues.
McCray-Penson had battled breast cancer back in 2013, but overcame the disease. At the time of her resignation in 2021, she told the Knoxville News Sentinel that it was to deal with some "health concerns I had hoped were behind me." McCray-Penson stated that her cancer battle wasn't related to her reasoning for submitting her resignation, and more because of the "mentally draining" COVID-19 pandemic.
The former Lady Vols standout joined Rutgers as an assistant on head coach Coquese Washington's staff for the 2022-23 season.