The Rutgers women’s basketball team will travel to Columbia, SC, this Sunday, October 22, to play South Carolina in a preseason exhibition game. The contest will honor Nikki McCray-Penson, who was an assistant coach on both teams during her coaching career.
McCray-Penson died of cancer on July 7, at age 51.
As a player, McCray-Pinson was a two-time All-American and three-time all-SEC selection at Tennessee. After graduating in 1995, she played in the ABL earning MVP honors in 1997. McCray-Penson then moved to the WNBA for eight seasons and played with five different teams, earning all-star status three times.
Internationally, she was a two-time Olympic gold medalist and was teammates with South Carolina Head Coach Dawn Staley.
McCray-Penson then went into coaching, first as an assistant at Western Kentucky (2006-08), then joining Staley’s staff at South Carolina (2008-17), where she helped the Gamecocks become a national power and won the 2017 national championship. She was twice a head coach at Old Dominion (2017-20), and Mississippi State (2020-21) before she had to step down for health reasons.
McCray-Penson came back to coaching and joined Washington at Rutgers last season. She helped the program to its 1000th win in program history. She also is in the Women’s Basketball Hall of Fame (2012).
She will be deeply missed by two friends, Rutgers’ Coquese Washington and South Carolina’s Staley.
“Obviously Nikki was close to both Dawn and myself,” Washington told the MSR last week. She added that both coaches talked about doing something meaningful for their late friend.
“I don’t know if enough can be said how much Nikki cared about people,” continued Washington. The second-year Rutgers coach recalled how much McCray-Penson wanted her to drink “some green drink” she made for her “so I would be healthy,” noted Washington with a smile.
Staley recalled a similar story when she spoke by phone to the MSR last week. “She ended up trying to talk me into juicing,” recalled the South Carolina coach. “I thought it was a lot of work.”
Her friend even went out and bought each of her colleagues a juicer. “We basically told her no,” Staley added.
Both coaches told us they had to get a waiver from the NCAA to play Sunday’s game. “You can’t play another Division I team if you are not benefiting something that is catastrophic…like hurricane victims,” explained Staley. “I just felt that Nikki impacted a lot of people… I don’t mean to compare…but certainly, our women’s basketball community lost a great one,” stressed the coach.
Throughout the game, both the Scarlet Knights and Gamecocks will raise funds for In the Middle, a nonprofit organization in Columbia, South Carolina, that provides financial assistance to women who are battling breast cancer and their families. Staley said the organization was started by a breast-cancer survivor around the same time McCray-Penson was going through her cancer treatment.
The Gamecocks coach added that she is starting an educational fund for McCray-Penson’s young son. “It’s a trust fund that will hopefully allow him to go to whatever school he wants to go to,” she said.
“[Sunday’s game] is an opportunity for us to just remember somebody who meant so much to both programs in a way that is truly reflective of who Nikki was,” said Washington.
Cheney’s Coach McGriff passes
Dr. Kyle Adams, Delaware State Deputy AD, announced last week the passing of former Cheney University WBB coach Winthrop McGriff, the only Black male coach to lead a women’s team to the NCAA Final Four (1984). He and C. Vivian Stringer, who also coached at Cheney, are the only two Black head coaches to ever lead an HBCU to the Final Four. Cheney is the first and last HBCU to play for a national championship (1982).