Two-time Olympic gold medal winner and Women's Basketball Hall of Fame inductee (Class of 2012) Nikki McCray-Penson reunited with her former teammate when she joined head coach Dawn Staley's South Carolina staff in May 2008. Following an 11-year professional playing career, McCray-Penson moved into the coaching ranks in 2006, spending two seasons on the bench at Western Kentucky before joining the Gamecocks. A three-time WNBA All-Star and the 1996-97 ABL Most Valuable Player, McCray-Penson has proven to be a standout recruiter who helped South Carolina land the nation's No. 2 recruiting class and the top player in the country in 2014.
McCray-Penson's energy and experience have helped the Gamecocks to five consecutive 25-win seasons and NCAA Tournament appearances (2012, 2013, 2014, 2015, 2016). The Gamecocks have finished among the SEC's top four each of the last five seasons, including securing the program's first SEC regular-season championship in 2014, a share of that title in 2015 and the league's second ever 16-0 record to claim the 2016 championship. South Carolina has earned three straight NCAA Tournament No. 1 seeds, the program's first coming in 2014. Appearing in the event's Sweet 16 in four of the last five seasons, the Gamecocks reached their first NCAA Final Four in 2015. South Carolina capped the 2014-15 season with its best final national ranking, coming in at No. 3 after spending 12 weeks of the season in the No. 1 position. The Gmecocks have finished among the nation's top 10 each of the past three seasons.
"Success doesn't happen overnight, but when you are invested in the people around you and you want them to succeed, good things will happen," McCray-Penson said. "Our goal is to win a national championship, and because of the hard work and dedication of our staff and players every day, we are in a position to compete for that title every year."
McCray-Penson got her start in coaching at Western Kentucky where she played a key role in recruiting. With her on the staff, the Lady Toppers to a 49-17 record, which included a WNIT semifinal appearance in 2006-07 and a Sun Belt Tournament title and a berth in the NCAA Tournament in 2007-08.
Prior to moving into the coaching world, McCray-Penson enjoyed a nine-year career in the WNBA, following a two-year stint in the ABL. She signed her first professional playing contract with the ABL's Columbus Quest in 1996 and proceeded to lead the team to the league championship, earning league MVP honors along the way. Joining the WNBA's Washington Mystics in 1998, McCray-Penson was the team's leading scorer in each of her first two seasons and played in the WNBA All-Star game three times in her four years in Washington. She earned a starting spot in the league's inaugural All-Star game in 1999 and was the leading vote-getter among Eastern Conference guards in 2000.
McCray-Penson went on to play five more seasons in the WNBA, spending two with the Indiana Fever and one each with the Phoenix Mercury, the San Antonio Silver Stars and the Chicago Sky prior to her retirement at the end of the 2006 season. With 2,528 points, she finished her career ranked 24th on the WNBA's career scoring list. Averaging 10.1 points per game, she was a career 41.3 percent shooter.
A veteran of international basketball as well, McCray-Penson was part of the USA Basketball program on three separate occasions. Those stints were highlighted by trips to the Olympic Games in 1996 and 2000, both of which resulted in gold medals for the United States. She was a key element on the 1995-96 team that spent more than a year together in residency for the first time in USA Basketball's history. The effort helped the group to 60-0 record in international competition and sparked two professional women's basketball leagues in the United States.
"There is nothing like putting that USA jersey on your shoulders," McCray-Penson said. "Not only are you working for yourself and your family, but now you're working for your country. When you beat other countries and stand up there on that podium and hear your national anthem that is an unbelievable feeling. I feel very fortunate and blessed to have done it several times."
In her four-year career at Tennessee, McCray-Penson keyed three SEC regular-season titles, two conference tournament championships and four NCAA Tournament appearances for the Lady Vols. In addition to helping UT build a 122-11 record, McCray-Penson picked up All-America and SEC Player of the Year honors in both her junior and senior years. She scored 1,572 career points, a number that still ranks her among the Lady Vols' all-time top 15.
McCray-Penson graduated from Tennessee in 1995 with a bachelor's degree in sports marketing. She is married to Thomas Penson, and the couple has a son, Thomas Nikson Penson born Feb. 1, 2013. She was inducted into the Greater Knoxville Sports Hall of Fame as part of the Class of 2014 and into the National High School Hall of Fame with the Class of 2015.
The McCray-Penson Capsule
South Carolina, assistant coach, 2008-present
Western Kentucky, assistant coach, 2006-08
Chicago Sky, WNBA, 2006
San Antonio Silver Stars, WNBA, 2005
Phoenix Mercury, WNBA, 2004
Indiana Fever, WNBA, 2002-03
Washington Mystics, WNBA, 1998-2001
Three-time WNBA All-Star, 1999, 2000, 2001
Columbus Quest, ABL, 1996-98
ABL Most Valuable Player, 1996-97
League Championship, 1996-97
USA Basketball, 1993, 1995-96, 1998-2000
Olympic Gold Medal, 1996, 2000
University of Tennessee, 1991-95
Two-time Kodak All-America, 1994, 1995
Two-time Naismith All-America, 1994, 1995
Two-time SEC Player of the Year, 1994, 1995
Women's Basketball Hall of Fame, Class of 2012
National High School Hall of Fame, Class of 2015
Greater Knoxville Sports Hall of Fame, Class of 2014
Bachelor of science in sports marketing, Tennessee, 1995