McCray, Monarchs are on upward climb
Old Dominion University was on pace to make its first NCAA tournament since 2008.
ODU got its first win over a Power 5 opponent since 2015. It snapped Rice’s 30-game conference win streak and earned votes in the AP Top 25. Head coach Nikki McCray was named Conference USA Coach of the Year.
But in March, both the CUSA and NCAA tournaments were canceled due to the coronavirus pandemic.
“It was unfortunate that we had an abrupt ending to our season,” McCray said. “We’ll never know where we could have gone this year. But I’m excited about the future. It’s been a part of the vision.”
The Monarchs have been regulars in the WNIT in recent years, so when McCray was hired, she was tasked with returning ODU to relevance it hadn’t had since players like Nancy Lieberman, Anne Donavan, Ticha Penicheiro and Medina Dixon were on campus.
McCray wanted to put Old Dominion back into the spotlight.
“Nikki would not have taken the ODU job if she didn’t think she could move the needle,” said South Carolina head coach Dawn Staley.
And so a month after winning the 2017 national championship as an assistant the Gamecocks, McCray’s work with the Monarchs began.
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The team went 8-23 (6-23 CUSA) in her first season, which included a six-game losing streak to start the campaign. But McCray, who helped build the program at South Carolina, was just coming off of the national championship after starting in 2008. So she had fresh perspective on the marathon that is the journey from irrelevance to dominance.
“We went through some tough times,” McCray said. “But, you know, through hard work through perseverance, I knew that there was going to be a light at the end of the tunnel. We had to recruit the right kids, we had to change the culture. I’d always go back to, ‘Yes, we’re having somewhat of success, but we don’t have that if you don’t go through what we went through in my first year here.”
In her second season, ODU improved to a 21-11 (10-6 CUSA) record and returned to the WNIT.
McCray thanks her student-athletes, their parents, her coaches, staff and administration for contributing to her success. “I just feel really blessed to be around people that work hard. And that’s really been the story.”
But noted that the players that decided to stick with her are the reason the Monarchs are having the success they are having right now. McCray says she’s often asked how she gets players to buy-in to her program and long-term vision.
“You have to have some type of relationship with the players,” she said. “The other thing is, you have to give them a voice, a voice of reason, you know, to where there’s open and honest dialogue between you and them. And they have to feel that because if not, you’re not going to be able to respond.
“When young people feel like they’re a part of it, they take ownership.”
None of McCray’s success surprises Staley, who coached with McCray and played with her at USA basketball. They’ve known each other for a long time.
“I think she was known as a great recruiter, but people didn’t really see the amount of time that she puts into the X’s and O’s,” Staley said. “She really thinks about it. She watches a lot of film. She’s always got great ideas.”
Staley says what separates McCray is her work ethic, willingness to “leave no stone unturned” and ability to compartmentalize. She mentioned that the same attributes that make McCray a great coach and player are one of three reasons helped her beat breast cancer.
“She applied everything that she’s done over her entire career as a player and a coach,” Staley said. “And that is to, you know, investigate, do as much studying – even though she probably did too much. You know too much internet, we had to tell her to put that down because, you know, it’ll drive you crazy.”
When McCray was hired in 2017, she mentioned the opportunity to “tradition of winning back to ODU.” In 2020, she’s already moving the needle.
“This year in particular, you know, we talked about empowering and what that looked like, that was our theme,” McCray said. “I think we just empowered ourselves to become the best that we could be, we empowered our fans to invest more in our team, and our alumni. And with that, you know, I think our team just really went to another level.”
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