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Women’s basketball icon Nikki McCray-Penson dies at 51

Nikki McCray-Penson was head coach of the Mississippi State women's basketball team from 2020-21. (Keith Lucas, Mississippi Clarion Ledger via Imagn Content Services, LLC)

Nikki McCray-Penson, a former NCAA and WNBA star and head coach of the Mississippi State women’s basketball team, has died. She was 51.

While the cause of death was not immediately known, McCray-Penson had been open about her battle with breast cancer after she was diagnosed with the illness in 2013.

McCray-Penson was a two-time SEC Player of the Year and All-American as a point guard at Tennessee from 1991-95. She went on to play two years in the American Basketball League (ABL), where she was named MVP for the 1996-97 season, and nine years in the WNBA. Splitting time between the Washington Mystics, Indiana Fever, Phoenix Mercury, San Antonio Stars and Chicago Sky, McCray-Penson was a three-time WNBA All-Star and surpassed 2,550 points for her career.

The Tennessee native spent 16 years coaching after her playing career, most recently as an assistant coach for the Rutgers women’s basketball team. Her most notable coaching stints came as an assistant on Dawn Staley’s South Carolina staff from 2008-17 and as a head coach at Old Dominion (2017-20) and Mississippi State (2020-21).

“Thank you my little sister, my friend, my foxhole partner, my teammate, my fast food snacker, my basketball junkie, my fellow Olympian, my gold medalist and now my angel,” Staley wrote on Twitter along with a statement. “Suffer no more Nik Nik.”

McCray-Penson resigned from her post at Mississippi State in October 2021 due to health concerns.

“Over the past several weeks, I have been faced again with health concerns I had hoped were behind me,” she said in a statement at the time. “In light of these developments, I have decided to step away from coaching in order to devote my full time and energy to addressing those issues.”

Two-time WNBA MVP A’ja Wilson, who played under McCray-Penson at South Carolina, expressed her condolences on Twitter on Friday. The two won a NCAA championship together with the Gamecocks in 2017.

McCray-Penson also won two gold medals as a member of Team USA’s 1996 and 2000 Olympic teams. She was inducted into the Women’s Basketball Hall of Fame in 2012.

She is survived by her husband, Thomas Penson, and their son.