For Mississippi State fans, the 2017 Women’s Final will long be remembered for the “shot heard round the world”. As the final seconds ticked down, Morgan William drove to the key and pulled up for a jumper that would send the Lady Bulldogs to the National Championship for the first time in school history. Two days later, Mississippi State fell to South Carolina and the Lady Gamecocks hoisted the trophy at the center circle. Coach Nikki McCray-Penson was part of that South Carolina celebration. Two weeks ago, she was officially introduced as the new head coach for the Lady Bulldogs.
MSU’s new head coach arrives on the heels of major success in her first head coaching endeavor. She was 53-40 in her three seasons at the helm of the Old Dominion program. She earned the conference coach of the year distinction after leading the Lady Monarchs to 24-6 overall and 14-4 records in Conference USA play this past season. The team was in the midst of its second consecutive 20 win season when the season was cancelled due to the spread of the coronavirus.
Mississippi State Athletic Director John Cohen noted in his introduction of McCray-Penson that she has been a part of 17 championship teams. Her resume is admittedly a stellar one.
A standout at Collierville High School in Tennessee, she helped the school win its first and only championship in 1989. A standout guard under Pat Summitt at Tennessee, she was a two-time SEC Player of the Year and won three SEC Championships. The Lady Vol Hall of Famer earned two Olympic gold medals in the 1996 and 2000 Summer Olympics. Mississippi native Ruthie Bolton was her teammate and roommate on the team. She says it was clear then that McCrary-Penson was destined for success.
“I saw humbleness and humility in her as a player, but I saw greatness in her,” said Bolton. “That year taught us so much about toughness, tenacity, resilience and teamwork. Everyday was the toughest day. (It) conditioned us to be competitive.”
McCray-Penson added to her impressive player resume two seasons in the (ABL) with the Columbus Quest where the 1997 Most Valuable Player earned back-to-back championships. She then spent eight seasons in the WNBA becoming a three-time All-Star.
Two years after retiring from the WNBA and beginning her coaching career as an assistant at Western Kentucky, she joined former USA Basketball teammate Dawn Staley as her assistant at South Carolina. McCray-Penson was given the job of assisting with recruiting for the program which was quickly rising to prominence. One of her recruits was Jackson Academy basketball standout Brett Ball, niece of Ruthie Bolton.
“She was a large part of the reason I chose South Carolina,” said Ball. “I grew up watching her play with my aunt so I looked up to her as the type of player I wanted to be.”
Ball would never play a game with the Lady Gamecocks. Before the start of her freshman year, she was diagnosed with a heart condition. Although she remained on scholarship, she found herself struggling to cope with the reality that her playing days were over. McCray-Penson was a continuous source of support.
“She knew how important my relationship with Christ was. She would send me motivational scriptures and quotes,” said Ball. “That really helped lift my spirits because I couldn’t be on the court with my teammates like I wanted to.”
It is that kind spirit and pure heart that Bolton believes will make Mississippi State players and fans fall in love with their new coach.
“She has that southern charm. She is a mother. She is a people person. She has that beautiful smile,” said Bolton. “I think people will embrace her because she is humble. She is a great fit for Mississippi State.”
Bolton points out that her former roommate’s talents are not limited to basketball. During their time on the USA National tour, the pair sang the national anthem together at over 30 games. Often before they took to the court to play. Bolton says that she would love for Bulldog fans to experience their new coach’s soprano voice.
“She has a beautiful voice, but she is so humble about it. I think it will be nice if she becomes the first SEC coach to sing and then coach the game. I don’t know if that’s ever been done. I think that would be sweet and if she asks me I might help her out,” she laughs. “It will be a nice little reunion.”