The Nikki McCray era has begun at Mississippi State

VICTORIA , BC - NOVEMBER 28: Jayla Hemingway #1 of the Mississippi State Bulldogs smiles on the beach following a victory against the San Francisco Dons at the Greater Victoria Invitational at the Centre for Athletics, Recreation and Special Abilities (CARSA) on November 28, 2019 in Victoria, British Columbia, Canada. (Photo by Kevin Light/Getty Images)
VICTORIA , BC - NOVEMBER 28: Jayla Hemingway #1 of the Mississippi State Bulldogs smiles on the beach following a victory against the San Francisco Dons at the Greater Victoria Invitational at the Centre for Athletics, Recreation and Special Abilities (CARSA) on November 28, 2019 in Victoria, British Columbia, Canada. (Photo by Kevin Light/Getty Images) /

Notes from the beginning of McCray-Penson’s tenure

During her first press conference as Mississippi State head coach, Nikki McCray-Penson made a few things clear.

First and foremost, the Bulldogs’ expectation to win will not change.

“I want to win national championships,” McCray-Penson said. “That’s in my DNA. I want to win SEC championships. And we will.”

McCray-Penson signed a four-year deal with a base yearly salary of $750,000, according to the Clarion Ledger. And she starts her new role in a unique position.

After three years with the program, she successfully built mid-major ODU back up to an NCAA tournament caliber team. Then on April 5, Vic Schaefer decided to leave Starkville for Austin to coach at the University of Texas.

Ten days later, she was introduced as head coach of the AP No. 9 team in the country, a team with a 27-6 (13-3 SEC) record in 2019-20. Mississippi State played for the national championship in 2017 and 2018 and in the last five SEC tournament title games.

It’s not just McCray who has expectations of playing in April. The fanbase does as well.

“When I pick up the phone and I say, I’m the head coach of Mississippi State. They know who we are,” she said. “And, you know, obviously, Vic’s done a great job in that. And I’m just really excited, you know, to be a part of this brand of basketball, but it’s very popular and everybody in America knows Mississippi State women’s basketball.”

Her mission is maintaining success and ultimately winning that national title.

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Her roster

The second major point McCray-Penson made was that her first priority is building relationships with her new players.

The team hasn’t lost its young talent. Seventy percent of its offense is returning as well as the top scorer and rebounder. Last season, freshman Rickea Jackson averaged 15.1 points and 5.1 rebounds and sophomore Jessika Carter, 13 points and 8.7 rebounds.

Shortly after her hire, Mississippi State players including Jackson, Myah Taylor, Carter, Xaria Wiggins, Sidney Cooks, JaMya Mingo-Young and Andra Espinoza-Hunter voiced their support of McCray and commitment to the program. (Junior Chloe Bibby announced before McCray’s hire that she would be transferring and freshman Jayla Hemingway did the same before Schaefer’s departure.)

“Obviously, the cupboard is not bare here,” McCray said.

Throughout her Zoom press conference, she reiterated that her first focus is the players. It’s something she said led to her success at Old Dominion as well.

Last month, she told High Post Hoops while at ODU, she often got asked how she gets players to buy-in to her vision.

“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,” she said. “When young people feel like they’re a part of it, they take ownership.”

McCray is focused on getting to know the current Bulldogs roster as well as the incoming Madison Hayes, taking in their considerations when it comes to hiring staff, which was recently announced, while working to keep the players active and maintaining their love for the game during the pandemic.

Her staff

The staff at Mississippi State will look familiar to anyone who watched ODU over the last couple of years. McCray-Penson has brought her crew over: associated head coach Keith Freeman, assistant coach Scepter Brownlee, assistant coach/recruiting coordinator Brittany Young and director of operations Ashley Morris.

“You are only as good as the people you surround yourself with,” McCray-Penson said in a statement. “I can’t think of a better group to work alongside as we start this next chapter. Not only are they talented but they are even better people. Each member of our staff has a relentless work ethic. They have a love and passion for coaching young people and for finding a way to win.”

Some familiar faces in Starville won’t go away. Maryann Baker transition from director operations to assistant athletics director for women’s basketball and Abby Hunt will remain in her coordinator of on-campus recruiting & digital services role.

“I am so thrilled to have Maryann and Abby stay on staff,” McCray-Penson said in a statement. “After talking with both of them, their passion for what they do was so clear. They are truly dedicated to Mississippi State athletics, to the community, and to our players. I know Maryann and Abby will both have a tremendous impact on our program as we continue to build on our success both on the court and in the community.”

A proven winner

Before athletic director John Cohen introduced McCray-Penson, he revealed what he was looking for in Schaefer’s successor: a leader, proven winner, a great recruiter, a coach who could connect with and mentor student-athletes and create a family.

Then, Cohen highlighted her ability to win.

Seventeen championships as a player and a coach. Final four appearances as a player and a coach. Two time SEC player of the year, All-American and gold medalist. WNBA All-Star. A 122-11 career record during as a player at Tennessee.

She wants to win and knows what it takes – she’s done it at every level.

“In my DNA is winning championships, I want to be playing on the last day, every season,” McCray said. “I know what that feels like. I know what it tastes like. And it’s a beautiful thing. So just getting our kids to understand that and what that looks like in the progress towards that. And this university is used to that. This women’s basketball team is used to that, so they already have it. We just have to sustain it.”

On the court, her team’s identity will match how she played: doing the little things well. She wants the team to play fast, apply pressure.

She’ll be applying things from all her other stops: As a player at Tennessee, she played tough defense. Working at South Carolina, they ran the ball and fed the posts. At USA basketball, they scored at a fast rate and ran the court.

“So all of those things have really kind of helped shape, you know, my vision of how I want our teams to play,” she said. “But I want them to play the way I played. Played it hard, played it fun and played it exciting.”

Her teams at ODU played slower pace than what Mississippi State has with Schaefer, but she’s familiar with his style – they’ve worked together at USA basketball and she’s coached against him while at South Carolina.

Since she’s played and coached in the SEC, she’s used to the physicality, the speed, and the types of players needed to be successful in the league.

McCray-Penson is also one of six black head women with head coaching roles in the SEC; There’s also Nikki Fargas at LSU, Terri Williams-Flournoy at Auburn, Yolett McPhee-McCuin at Ole Miss, Dawn Staley at South Carolina, Joni Taylor at Georgia. There were eight total black women in head coaching roles at Power 5 schools during the 2018-19 season, according to NCAA data.

“It is about, you know, leaving a legacy and set an example for future generations, you know, because that’s what was set for me,” she said. “Vivian Stringer set that example for me, for Dawn (Staley), Carolyn Peck. So that’s what it is, is really about leaving that legacy in setting that example for the future generation.”

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