STARKVILLE – Nikki McCray-Penson, considered one of the top rising stars in women’s college basketball having both playing and coaching experience in multiple Final Fours, has been named Mississippi State’s eighth head coach, Director of Athletics John Cohen announced Saturday.
“Nikki brings energy, creativity, and a winning mentality to Mississippi State that will inspire our student-athletes and community,” Cohen said. “She has earned a national reputation as an outstanding teacher of the game, dynamic recruiter and a developer of young women on and off the court. Nikki has achieved success at every step of her career, both as a coach and player. She is a proven winner who will lead one of the best women’s basketball programs in the nation. We are excited to welcome Nikki and her family to Starkville and are thrilled that she will lead us into the next chapter of Mississippi State women’s basketball.”
“It’s been a dream of mine to be a head coach in the SEC, and I’m so grateful and blessed for this incredible honor and opportunity to lead Mississippi State women’s basketball,” McCray-Penson said. “This is a national brand with incredible people, a storied tradition and an outstanding community that is second to none. I am confident that my experiences as a coach and player have prepared me for this, and I will pour everything I have into our student-athletes and program. My family and I are so happy to be a part of the Bulldog Family and we can’t wait to get started.”
A 2020 WBCA National Coach of the Year finalist, McCray-Penson has won championships at all levels of her basketball career. As a coach, she has been a part of one national championship, four conference championships and four conference tournament championships. As a player, she was a two-time Olympic gold medalist and 1998 World Cup gold medalist while competing for Team USA. She led her Columbus Quest team to the 1997 ABL Championship. During college, she helped Tennessee win three SEC regular-season championships and two SEC Tournament titles.
McCray-Penson’s prolific and decorated playing career earned her a place in the Women’s Basketball Hall of Fame. The three-time WNBA All-Star spent nine years in the league. She scored 2,550 career points while averaging 14.3 points, 2.7 rebounds and 2.5 assists per game. Prior to the WNBA, she played two seasons in the ABL, where she earned MVP honors during her championship season. In 2000, McCray was named to the President’s Council on Physical Fitness and Sports, which advises the President and Secretary of Health and Human Services on improving American’s participation in sports and physical activity.
During her collegiate career at Tennessee, McCray-Penson spearheaded legendary coach Pat Summitt’s teams to four NCAA Tournament appearances. The two-time All-American garnered SEC Player of the Year honors as a junior and senior, joining Chamique Holdsclaw and Meighan Simmons as the only two Lady Vols to ever win the yearly award twice. She helped lead Tennessee to the Final Four in 1995 and earned NCAA All-Final Four Team honors. McCray-Penson was named Best Defensive Player for Tennessee each of her four years between 1992 and 1995 and helped the Lady Vols to a 122-11 record during her career.
Before coming to Starkville, the 2020 C-USA Coach of the Year most recently finished her third season at Old Dominion, where she led the Monarchs to a 24-6 record, a second-place finish in the conference standings and an RPI ranking of 33 to end the year. It was the second season in a row that ODU had won at least 20 games, an accomplishment that hadn’t been achieved since 2006-08. Her squad’s success was recognized by coaches from around the country, as Old Dominion received votes for the top 25 rankings, something that hadn’t happened since 2008. Her defense ranked first in the country in three-point field goals allowed and 15th in scoring defense.
McCray-Penson coached the Monarchs to one of the biggest turnarounds in the nation by posting a 21-11 record during her second campaign, despite having the seventh-youngest roster in the country entering the year, after winning eight games in her first year. The 13-win improvement ranked sixth in the NCAA in 2018-19 and earned Old Dominion a postseason bid to the WNIT.
Overall at ODU, McCray-Penson compiled a 53-40 record and coached four players to all-conference honors, two individuals to all-defensive team recognition and two selections for the all-freshman team.
Prior to becoming a head coach, McCray-Penson served on staff as an assistant coach at South Carolina, where she helped the Gamecocks claim their first-ever National Championship in 2017. South Carolina earned six-consecutive NCAA Tournament appearances during her tenure, reaching five Sweet 16s, two Elite Eights and two Final Fours. During her last four seasons in Columbia, she helped lead the Gamecocks to four-straight SEC regular-season championships and three SEC Tournament titles.
Part of South Carolina’s success on the hardwood was a result of McCray-Penson’s ability to identify talent as the assistant recruiting coordinator. Regarded as one of the top recruiters in the country, she helped land the No. 2 class and the top player in the nation in 2014.
In her first coaching job, McCray-Penson played a big role in guiding Western Kentucky to back-to-back postseason appearances and a 2008 Sun Belt Tournament championship as an assistant coach. She was also the program’s head recruiting coordinator and signed one of WKU’s top all-time classes in 2007-08.
McCray-Penson graduated from Tennessee in 1995 with a Bachelor of Science in Education. She is married to Thomas Penson, and they have a son, Thomas Nikson Penson.
THE NIKKI McCRAY-PENSON FILE
Hometown: Collierville, Tennessee
Education: Tennessee, 1995 (Bachelor’s)
Children: Thomas Nikson
Birthday: December 17, 1971
2020-present: Mississippi State (Head Coach)
2017-20: Old Dominion (Head Coach)
2008-17: South Carolina (Assistant Coach)
2006-08: Western Kentucky (Assistant Coach)
- Women’s Basketball Hall of Fame (2012)
- National High School Hall of Fame (2015)
- Greater Knoxville Sports Hall of Fame (2014)
Old Dominion Highlights
- Named the 2020 C-USA Coach of the Year.
- Tabbed a 2020 WBCA Coach of the Year Finalist.
- Posted back-to-back 20-win seasons, an accomplishment that hadn’t been achieved since 2006-08.
- Coached the Monarchs to a No. 33 RPI year-end ranking in 2020; Team received votes in the USA Today Coaches Poll for the first time since 2008.
- Boasted a defense that ranked No. 1 in the country in three-point field goals allowed and 15th in scoring defenses in 2020.
- Increased her win total in 2018-19 by 13 games, which marked the sixth-best improvement in the NCAA.
- Earned a postseason bid to the 2019 WNIT.
- Coached four players to all-conference honors, two individuals to all-defensive team recognition and two selections for the all-freshman team.
South Carolina Highlights
- Helped coach the Gamecocks to their first-ever National Championship in 2017.
- Earned six-consecutive NCAA Tournament appearances during her tenure, reaching five Sweet 16s, two Elite Eights and two Final Fours.
- Won four SEC regular-season championships (2014, 2015, 2016, 2017).
- Claimed three SEC Tournament titles (2015, 2016, 2017).
- Helped land the No. 2 class and the top player in the nation in 2014.
Western Kentucky Highlights
- Helped guide WKU to a 2008 Sun Belt Tournament championship.
- Played a big role in guiding Western Kentucky to back-to-back postseason appearances.
- Earned a bid to the 2008 NCAA Tournament.
- Advanced to the Final Four of the 2007 WNIT.
- Signed one of WKU’s top all-time classes in 2007-08.
USA Basketball Highlights (Coaching and Playing)
- Served her first assignment as a USA Basketball court coach for the 2019 USA Basketball Women’s U19 and Pan Am Games team trials.
- Won two gold medals at the 1996 (Atlanta) and 2000 (Sydney) Olympics.
- Claimed the gold medal at the 1998 World Cup.
- Posted an overall playing record of 120-7.
- Named a WNBA All-Star three times (1999, 2000, 2001).
- Played nine seasons for five different teams, retiring with the Chicago Sky.
- Averaged 14.3 points, 2.7 rebounds and 2.5 assists per game for her career.
- Recorded five seasons with double-digit scoring averages, topped by 17.7 ppg in 1998.
- Was one of leading vote-getters for 2000 All-Star Game.
- Led the Columbus Quest to the 1997 ABL Championship.
- Named ABL MVP in 1997.
- Named a two-time SEC Player of the Year (1994, 1995); one of just three Lady Vols all time to achieve that feat.
- Earned Kodak and Naismith All-American status twice (1994, 1995).
- Won three SEC regular-season championships (1993, 1994, 1995).
- Claimed two SEC Tournament titles (1992, 1995).
- Competed in four NCAA Tournaments (1992, 1993, 1994, 1995).
- Led Tennessee to the national title game as a senior in 1995.
- Tabbed a three-time All-SEC selection (1993, 1994, 1995).
- Earned a spot on the 1995 SEC All-Academic Team.
- Finished her collegiate career with a 122-11 record.