Sad News: Former Lady Vol standout dies at 51

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.

At Rutgers University, McCray-Penson was working as an assistant coach. The native of Collierville, Tennessee, has been an assistant coach at Georgia Tech, South Carolina, and Western Kentucky in addition to holding head coaching positions at Old Dominion and Mississippi State. McCray-Penson, who played for the Lady Vols under the late head coach Pat Summitt from 1991 to 1995, graduated from the University of Tennessee in 1995. Over her career, she averaged 12.4 points and 5.3 points a game while playing in 127 games. With an average of 6.9 as a freshman, 10.9 as a sophomore, 16.3 as a junior, and 15.2 as a senior, she amassed 1,572 career points. As of the 2022–2023 season, she is ranked No. 19 on the school’s all-time scoring list.

Former Vol Michelle Marciniak remarked, “I have such wonderful memories of Nikki, but it is as my teammate first and foremost.” “I had the opportunity to meet the genuine Nikki McCray. She was cheerful all the time despite her intense competitiveness. She will always be a source of brightness in my life.
McCray-Penson was a three-time All-SEC honoree (1992–2003, 1994–1) and a two-time WBCA & Naismith All-American (1994, 1995). In addition, she was honored to be named to the SEC Academic Honor Roll (1995) and to be selected to the SEC All-Tournament team twice (1994, 1995). Other accolades included being selected to the 1995 NCAA Mideast Regional Most Outstanding Player team, the 1995 NCAA All-Final Four team, and the ESPY Awards Co-Team of the Decade (1990s). “It’s really tragic news. This just makes my heart hurt to hear. According to Abby Conklin, a former UT teammate, Nikki was an amazing person. “She had such a huge impact on my playing career, taking me under her wing the summer before my junior year.” While she was During her tenure at Tennessee, McCray-Penson led the Lady Vols to three consecutive SEC regular season titles (1993, 1994, 1995) and two SEC tournament victories (1992, 1994). It was there that she met her husband Thomas, who also graduated from UT in 1995. She assisted her team to the NCAA Elite Eight in 1993 and the Sweet 16 in 1992 and 1994. She was a member of Tennessee’s NCAA runner-up squad in 1995. UT was 122-11 while she was a Lady Vol, with a 43-1 record in SEC play.

She signed a professional contract with the Columbus Quest of the American Basketball League (ABL) upon her graduation from UT. Her club won the 1997 ABL Championship, and she was named league MVP. After that, she spent eight seasons playing in the WNBA, where she was selected to the 1999, 2000, and 2001 WNBA All-Star teams. She participated in league action for the Washington Mystics, Chicago Sky, San Antonio Silver Stars, Indiana Fever, and Phoenix Mercury. McCray-Penson participated on the American squad that won the gold medals at the Olympics in 1996 and 2000 as well as the 1998 FIBA World Championship. She and teammate Vol Carla McGhee were members of the 1996 U.S. Olympic team that won gold on home soil at the, 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.

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