Tennessee basketball is wearing patches on its warmup shirts for the upcoming season in honor of Lady Vols greats Nikki McCray-Penson and Tasha Butts, who both died this year after battles with breast cancer.

The tribute is personal for senior forward Rickea Jackson in particular. Jackson played for McCray-Penson at Mississippi State in the 2020-21 season, after which McCray-Penson stepped down due to health concerns. Jackson transferred to Tennessee ahead of the 2022-23 season.

“It definitely hit home for me, because me and Coach Nikki were close,” Jackson said Monday. “We still talk to this day. When I committed to Tennessee, she texted (assistant coach Samantha Williams)–”

Jackson, visibly overcome by her emotions, paused, and her teammate Sara Puckett continued for her.

“I think it means a lot to be able to have these on her warmup shirts,” Puckett said, gesturing to the black patches below each shoulder. “And I know it’s very hard for Rickea, because she was so close with Coach Nikki. It’s hard for me too, because that’s — those are losses in the Lady Vols family.

“So now it’s just playing for them. They’re part of the legacy. They built on this foundation of the program. So it’s just being able to come out here and play for especially them in these times, throughout this whole season. Because you know how tough they were, you know what they brought to the court and the coaching realm. And so just to be able to go out there and play for them is really special.”

McCray-Penson, who died in July at age 51 after a battle with breast cancer and a bout of pneumonia, played for Tennessee from 1991-95. She went on to play two seasons in the American Basketball League (ABL) and nine seasons in the WNBA.

After her playing career, she became a coach for 16 years, most notably 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).

Butts died in October at age 41 after her own battle with breast cancer. She played for Tennessee from 2000-04, then played one season in the WNBA for the Minnesota Lynx. She began in her coaching career in 2007, becoming the head coach at Georgetown in April 2023.