Minium: ODU's Nikki McCray-Penson in a hurry to rebuild both her program and the team's fan base
By ODU Athletics
Nikki McCray is in a hurry. She’s been the women’s basketball coach at Old Dominion University less than two years. And yet on Twitter, she asked for something as rare as a day without trucks rumbling down Hampton Boulevard.
She tweeted before ODU’s home opener against Norfolk State, urging fans to sell out the Ted Constant Convocation Center.
Mind you, the ODU women have never sold out the 8,400-seat arena without busloads of screaming Norfolk school children on Education Day (one of my favorite promotions, by the way).
But she’s trying to bring ODU back to where it was a decade ago, a relevant team nationally with a solid fan following. You can’t blame her for thinking big.
Attendance has fizzled in recent years, and, frankly, the crowds at the Ted have looked much smaller than the official count of tickets distributed. Few students go to games.
But Nikki intends to change that. And like I said, she’s in a hurry.
She recruited a class of nine freshmen and junior college players during the off season, and the Monarchs are 3-0 following a scintillating 76-72 overtime victory at Cincinnati of the American Athletic Conference.
It was a particularly sweet homecoming for Victoria Morris, a Cincy native who poured in a season-high 23 points. ODU has won its first three games for the first time in six years.
After the game, when she was being interviewed by ESPN radio’s Doug Ripley, Nikki sounded a bit like a Baptist minister urging the flock to come to church.
“I’m telling you, Monarch nation, we need you,” she said. “We’ve got a great product in the floor. We’re going to do our part. If you want the Lady Monarchs to get back where we were, then pack the house. Come out and support us.”
I’m not sure I’ve heard salesmanship like that since Bobby Wilder was hawking tickets in 2008, the year before ODU began playing football. She’s taken her teams to schools, athletic events and charity events to promote her Monarchs.
Nikki McCray-Penson is in a hurry to turn ODU into a winning program, and once again draw large crowds to the Ted Constant Center.
Nikki is nearly out-Wildering Bobby.
This has been a particularly difficult year personally for Nikki, a breast cancer survivor who lost her mother to cancer this summer and her grandfather a few weeks ago.
But she has soldiered on and been coaching and promoting her team with passion.
"People want to see a great product on the floor, but it’s more about relationships," she said of ODU women's fans who perhaps stopped coming to games.
"They want to feel connected to the players That’s why we take our players out into the community. We want our players to be a part of our community. That’s why our slogan is "rooted together." First and foremost, we have to be rooted to our fans. That's why our kids mingle with the fans after games."
ODU is also trying to reconnect with its history. The team is wearing patches in honor of Anne Donovan, the former ODU All-American who died at the age of 56 this past summer. The program held a gala last month in which former coach Marianne Stanley, who guided the Lady Monarchs to three national championships, was the featured speaker and won the first Anne Donovan award.
"When Marianne spoke, there were people in tears," Nikki said.
Winning on the road is tough, especially against a power school like Cincinnati which usually has bigger players. ODU won because it outworked the Bearcats, outrebounding them 56-37. ODU had just a two-rebound edge at the half.
The late Pat Summitt, who coached Nikki at Tennessee, used to say rebounds win championships. I can’t begin to count the number of times I’ve heard Nikki say that at practice.
“We rebounded the ball and hit big shots,” she said. “We learned a lot about ourselves, how important rebounding is. We played with poise and that was such a good thing for such a young team. Winning on the road is vital.”
Cincinnati native Victoria Morris poured in 23 points at Cincinnati a day after her church hosted a dinner for the ODU women's basketball team.
So is winning at home, and ODU gets a rare chance to host an ACC school Sunday when the University of Virginia visits at 2 p.m.
U.Va. lost its opener at Mississippi State 72-44, although the No. 6 Bulldogs are a national power and the Cavaliers are rebuilding. U.Va. was picked 11th in the 15-team ACC.
Yes, it’s still November, but this is the kind of game ODU needs to win to build an NCAA tournament-worthy resume.
What makes ODU’s start most impressive is that all three teams the Monarchs have beaten were picked in the top half of their leagues.
ODU crushed Campbell, picked to finish fifth in the Big South, 83-59.
ODU then routed MEAC third-place pick Norfolk State 69-53.
Cincinnati was picked fifth in the AAC, home of powerhouse UConn.
ODU had balanced scoring against the Bearcats, with Ajah Wayne tossing in 24 points and hauling down 16 rebounds and Taylor Edward adding 18 points and seven rebounds.
The Morris family hosted ODU for dinner the night before the game at a Cincinnati church. More than 200 Morris family members and friends sat behind the ODU bench and made Cincinnati's arena sound like a Monarch home game.
It’s what Nikki wants The Ted to sound like Sunday.
I know there’s a lot of competition for your attention this week. The Barry Art Museum has opened. Foreman Field shuts it doors for the last time Saturday night when ODU hosts VMI just days before the wrecking ball takes down the 82-year-old stadium.
And there’s the annual holiday parade Saturday night in downtown Norfolk.
But the Monarchs are worth a look.
Nikki didn’t get a sellout crowd for Norfolk State. But attendance was announced at 2,706, and it looked like a legit crowd. It was a far larger crowd than the norm for the Monarchs in recent years and a surprising number of students showed up.
Season ticket sales are about 10 percent over last year, and Nikki continues to hawk them.
On Wednesday, she said any media member who comes to watch practice will get a free meal. WVEC-TV's Scott Cash took the bait and is doing a story on the Monarchs.
Smart woman. She knows sportscasters and sports writers. We never turn down a free meal (including me, though I interviewed Nikki earlier in the day and missed practice).
Sunday’s game matches good friends and former Olympic teammates both rebuilding traditional powerhouses. U.Va. first-year coach Tina Thompson is in the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame. She retired as the WNBA’s all-time leading scorer and was a two-time Olympic gold medalist and a four-time WNBA champion. She was the first player drafted in the history of the WNBA.
Nikki’s resume is equally stout.
After starring at Tennessee, she had a 11-year pro career, where she was a three-time All-WNBA choice and the American Basketball Leagues MVP in 1997. McCray was a standout recruiter at South Carolina and helped head coach Dawn Staley win a national championship in 2017.
A two-time Olympic gold medalist, she was inducted into the Women’s Basketball Hall of Fame in 2012.
Clearly, women’s basketball royalty will be on both sidelines Sunday. The game should be competitive and physical.
"I've known Tina for a long time," Nikki said. "We’ve battled a lot. And we were teammates. She’s a proven winner.
"I have so much respect for her and what she stands for. I want to see her do well at U.Va. and she will. She'll build great program there.
"But she’s coming here to battle and we will battle U.Va."
The game won’t sell out. But now that ODU is winning, will the fans who drifted away start to come back?
Given time, I think they will. This team is fun to watch. The players have been in the community promoting themselves.
And they’ve got Nikki at the pulpit, doing her best to persuade former ODU fans that the good old days, the days of winning games and competing for championships, are indeed back.
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