Former Lady Vol standout dies at 51

Published 4:04 pm Monday, July 10, 2023

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Nikki McCray-Penson, a two-time U.S. Olympic gold medalist, two-time SEC Player of the Year at Tennessee and member of the Women’s Basketball Hall of Fame died Friday at age 51.

Cause of death has not been released, but McCray-Penson was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2013.

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McCray-Penson had been serving as an assistant coach at Rutgers University. The Collierville, Tennessee, native held previous roles as a head coach at Old Dominion and Mississippi State, and also had served as an assistant at Georgia Tech, South Carolina and Western Kentucky.

A 1995 graduate of the University of Tennessee, McCray-Penson starred for the Lady Vols and the late head coach Pat Summitt from 1991 to 1995. She played in 127 games and averaged 12.4 points and 5.3 points for her career. She scored 1,572 career points, averaging 6.9 as a freshman, 10.9 as a sophomore, 16.3 as a junior and 15.2 as a senior. She ranks No. 19 on the school’s all-time scoring list through the 2022-23 campaign.

“I have such great memories of Nikki, but it is as my teammate first and foremost,” said former Vol Michelle Marciniak. “I got to experience the real Nikki McCray. She was fiercely competitive, but she always had a smile on her face. I’m always going to consider her a bright light in my life.”

McCray-Penson was a two-time WBCA & Naismith All-American (1994, 1995) and three-time All-SEC honoree (1993-2nd, 1994-1st, 1995-1st). She also garnered recognition as a two-time SEC All-Tournament selection (1994, 1995) and member of the SEC Academic Honor Roll (1995). Other honors included being named to the 1995 NCAA All-Final Four Team (1995) and as the 1995 NCAA Mideast Regional Most Outstanding Player as well as being part of the ESPY Awards Co-Team of the Decade (1990s).

“This is such sad news. It just breaks my heart to hear this. Nikki was such a wonderful person,” said former UT teammate Abby Conklin. “She took me under her wing the summer going into my junior year, and she had such a huge impact on my playing career.”

During her time at Tennessee, where she met her husband Thomas (also a 1995 UT graduate), McCray-Penson led the Lady Vols to three straight SEC regular season crowns (1993, 1994, 1995) and two SEC tournament titles (1992, 1994). She was part of Tennessee’s NCAA runner-up team in 1995 and helped her squad to the NCAA Elite Eight in 1993 and the Sweet 16 in 1992 and 1994. UT was 122-11 during her time as a Lady Vol, including 43-1 in SEC play.

After graduating from UT, she began her pro career in the American Basketball League (ABL) with the Columbus Quest. She won 1997 league MVP honors and led her team to the 1997 ABL Championship. She then played in the WNBA for eight seasons and was named to WNBA All-Star teams in 1999, 2000 and 2001. During her time in the league, she played for the Washington Mystics, Indiana Fever, Phoenix Mercury, San Antonio Silver Stars and Chicago Sky.

Internationally, McCray-Penson was a member of the 1996 and 2000 gold medal-winning U.S. Olympic teams and competed on America’s 1998 FIBA World Championship team. She was part of the 1996 U.S. Olympic squad, along with fellow Vol Carla McGhee, that won gold on U.S. soil at the Atlanta Games.

Among her hall of fame inductions, she was named to the National High School Hall of Fame (2015), Greater Knoxville Sports Hall of Fame (2014), Women’s Basketball Hall of Fame (2012) and University of Tennessee Athletics Hall of Fame (2004). She was honored by the Tennessee Sports Hall of Fame in 2001 as its Female Professional Athlete of the Year.

Her additional honors include Shelby County School Education Foundation Inductee (2007), Basketball Beyond Borders representative (2005-present), WNBA Community Assist Award winner (2005), First Lady Laura Bush Book Club member (2001), member of the President’s Council of Physical Fitness & Sports (1998-2000), previous Prevent Child Abuse America board member and keynote speaker for the Library of Congress Women’s History Month.

Survivors include husband Thomas and son Thomas Nikson Penson.