Minium: Return of Wendy Larry, Cancer Walk and Victory for Nikki McCray Made Hoops for the Cure a Very Special Night

February 09, 2019
By ODU Athletics
ODU Athletics

By Harry Minium

There were three very emotional moments during and after Old Dominion’s impressive, 70-65, women’s basketball victory over Middle Tennessee/ I’m not sure where to begin, so I’ll start with the surprise of the evening.

Early in the first quarter, the crowd of 2,400 got a pleasant surprise when former coach Wendy Larry walked onto the court. Wendy, and I call her Wendy because she and I attended ODU together and I covered enough of her as a player and coach to be on a first-name basis, hadn’t been to a game at the Ted Constant Center since she resigned after a testy contract standoff in 2011.

She stayed on briefly at ODU in an administrative position, but it wasn't the most amicable of splits.

Larry is to be inducted into the Virginia Sports Hall of Fame this spring in Virginia Beach and was accompanied on the court by Will Driscoll, the hall’s executive director.

She more than earned her way into the hall, winning 17 Colonial Athletic Association titles and 608 games and coming a few shots away from beating Tennessee in the 1997 national championship game.

Will Driscoll of the Virginia Sports Hall of Fame helps introduce Wendy Larry Saturday night. 

She got a robust, standing ovation. Coaches and referees walked over to shake her hand. It was a very cool moment.

She looked happy and a little uncomfortable at the same time, but kudos to associate athletic director Jason Chandler for setting up the event. She shook hands with ODU President John R. Broderick and athletic director Wood Selig and spent most of the rest of the game renewing acquaintances with fans and friends.

ODU coach Nikki McCray-Penson has reached out to Larry to try to bring her into the ODU fold, and I hope this was another step toward a more full reconciliation.

Fast forward to halftime, when ODU was nursing a 6-point lead. It was the 17th Annual Hoops for the Cure Game, which is dedicated toward celebrating survivors of breast cancer and promoting breast cancer awareness.

Most fans came adorned in pink shirts, including yours truly, my wife Ellen and her sister, Susan Vancerploeg

The court was surrounded by students and others in pink as about 100 cancer survivors, led by Big Blue, marched in to the tune of “I will Survive.” Most waved pom poms, but a few trudged along with the help of canes as the crowd stood and clapped in unison.

Among those walking was Debbie White, the retired ODU assistant athletic director who will also be inducted into the Virginia Sports Hall of Fame in April. She is a breast cancer survivor.

Nikki wasn’t on the court, she was in the locker room with her team, but she was there in spirit. She’s a breast cancer survivor – she was diagnosed after finding a lump in her breast while breastfeeding her son.

With the help of her husband, Thomas, and mother, Sally Coleman, she survived surgery, radiation and chemo while coaching at the University of South Carolina.

By the way, being a survivor doesn’t mean you’re cured. It doesn’t mean life goes back to normal.

You go back for tests every few months and worry the results will show the cancer has returned. Just ask ODU men's basketball coach Jeff Jones, who was treated for prostate cancer, only to see it return (the cancer is under control and his Monarchs won their 20th game Saturday at Middle Tennessee).

Nikki’s Mom was also a cancer survivor and that’s why she was such an awesome help to her daughter. She’d been there. Every step of the way, she knew what her daughter was going through.

Nikki McCray with her mother, Sally Coleman. 

"It was such a comfort knowing that she understood what I was going through,” Nikki said.

Early last year, Sally’s cancer returned and by the late spring, it was apparent she would not survive.

I’m proud to say that ODU officials, including Broderick and Selig, gave her the time off she needed to be with her Mom as she passed away. We’re not talking about days here. We’re talking about weeks at a time over several months.

Nikki McCray was able to be with Mom as she was dying of breast cancer

Since I began working at ODU six months ago, I’ve learned so much about how kind and good the school is to its employees and students. ODU is a school that truly cares.

Which brings me to the third emotional moment, when the Monarchs were celebrating the victory on the court. Most fans had departed and the players were gathered in a circle and yelling when Nikki lowered her head and began to cry. 

The players immediately came to her with a big group hug. Then they began hugging her one-on-one, and then began to get hugs from fans.

Imagine how she felt, half a year after losing her Mom to cancer, winning a hard-fought contest on the day when ODU celebrates those who have survived cancer.

“I want to thank all of the fans that came,” Nikki said at game’s end. “It was a special moment for the Old Dominion community. Obviously, it was a special moment for me.

“A big shout out to all of the survivors. Every single day we battle by living in the moment, by enjoying each moment with our families and friends.”

ODU's players and staff were psyched to win the Hoops for the Cure game for their coach, who lost her mother to breast cancer. 

The game was physical and both teams played hard. It wasn’t always artful, but that’s in part because both teams really went at each other.

This was a big win for ODU (17-7 overall, 8-4 Conference USA), which is vying to be among the top seeds at the C-USA tournament in Frisco, Texas. Beating MTSU (18-6, 9-2) was a quality win.

ODU played without Victoria Morris, its leading scorer who remains out with an ankle injury. Despite being hobbled a bit by taking a knee to the thigh, Ajah Wayne had 17 points and 8 rebounds, 5 assists and 4 steals. She gave a gutty performance.

Guard Taylor Edwards had 18 points and seven rebounds while helping to run ODU’s offense.

But it was Aziah Hudson who stepped up in a huge way, making 5 of 6 three-point shots and scoring a career-high 23 points.

How badly did ODU want to win? The Monarchs out rebounded MTSU, 47-23. They simply outworked the Blue Raiders.

“We knew we had to get this game,” Hudson said “It was a very emotional game for coach. The fact that we got it for her means a lot.”

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