Nikki McCray-Penson will likely reinforce Mississippi State’s defense-first mentality.

Vic Schaefer has left Mississippi State, but the Bulldogs women’s basketball identity likely will not change with the hiring of Nikki McCray-Penson.

Rick Cleveland

Under McCray-Penson, the Bulldogs likely will retain a defense-first mentality.

If I heard Schaefer say it once, I heard it a hundred times, “I believe you win with defense.” His teams played that way.

From all accounts, McCray-Penson’s will, too.

Listen to Mississippi Sports Hall of Fame coach Van Chancellor talk about McCray-Penson. “She’s one of the best defensive players to have ever played the game,” Chancellor said. “Honestly, I don’t know if I ever saw one better. She was a great, great player and it was mostly because of her defense. I’ve always thought you could tell a lot about how a coach coaches by the way they played when they were a player. I believe that’s the case with Nikki.”

Chancellor, also a Naismith (international basketball) Hall of Famer, went on: “Besides all that, she’s a hard worker and classy person with a warm, infectious smile. She’s a great hire for Mississippi State.”

Van Chancellor raves about Nikki McCray-Penson.

Chancellor, a Mississippi State alum, qualifies as an expert. He was SEC Coach of the Year three times at Ole Miss, WNBA Coach of the Year three times with the Houston Comets. He coached the Comets to the first four WNBA championships. He coached the U.S. to a World Championship and then Olympic Gold. He also coached against McCray-Penson when she was one of the legendary Pat Head-Summitt’s best-ever players at Tennessee. He watched her when she was a two-time Olympic gold medalist. He coached against her in the WNBA. He covered her as a TV analyst when she assisted Dawn Staley at South Carolina.

“I know Dawn really hated to lose her when she took the head coaching job at Old Dominion,” Chancellor said. “Dawn thought she helped them a lot defensively in all they achieved at South Carolina.”

McCray-Penson took that same defensive emphasis to Old Dominion where her team finished 24-6 this past season, primarily by holding opponents to a 35.3 shooting percentage, 24.3 percent from beyond the 3-point line. For comparison sake, Mississippi State opponents shot 39.3 and 31.7 percent last season.

When McCray took the Old Dominion job, her first as a head coach, she did more than hint at her coaching philosophy in her introductory press conference.

“I’m the type of coach who likes to force the action,” McCray-Penson said. “I want to force the action on offense, I want to force the action on defense. I want to make it very hard for people to score.

“I didn’t make the Olympic team because I scored points; I made it because I could play defense,” she continued. “That’s desire, and that’s what our kids are going to have. They’re not going to back down from a challenge. I never back down from a challenge.”

Mississippi State athletic director John Cohen says everyone he spoke with about McCray-Penson sounded as if they were parroting one another.

John Cohen

“Everybody said the same thing,” Cohen said. “They all spoke glowingly of her competitiveness and her personality. They talked about her ability to recruit and her attention to detail as a coach. It was a combination of attributes that convinced me.”

From all reports, McCray-Penson already has passed her first test at State. Schaefer left behind a talented, deep roster that clearly has Top-10 potential if held together. Many State fans worried, whether warranted or not, that some players might follow Schaefer and his staff to Texas.

Over the weekend, State’s key returning players all indicated through social media they plan to remain in Stark Vegas and look forward to playing under McCray-Penson. Defensively, at least, they might not notice much change.

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Rick Cleveland, a native of Hattiesburg and resident of Jackson, has been Mississippi Today’s sports columnist since 2016. A graduate of the University of Southern Mississippi with a bachelor’s in journalism, Rick has worked for the Monroe (La.) News Star World, Jackson Daily News and Clarion Ledger. He was sports editor of Hattiesburg American, executive director of the Mississippi Sports Hall of Fame. His work as a syndicated columnist and celebrated sports writer has appeared in numerous magazines, periodicals and newspapers.
Rick has been recognized 13 times as Mississippi Sports Writer of the Year, and is recipient of multiple awards and honors for his reporting and writing.