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Minium: In spite of Loss to WKU, Nikki McCray is Right on Schedule in Building a Championship Program at ODU

March 14, 2019
By ODU Athletics

By Harry Minium

FRISCO, Texas

Nearly half a year ago, when Conference USA women’s basketball coaches convened here for media day, they tabbed Old Dominion to finish 11th in the 14-team league.

It was a laughable prediction to those of us who know how hard and well Nikki McCray-Penson has toiled to rebuild this program.  I knew she’d have a winning season, and that she might even break the 20-win mark.

Turns out, McCray is right on schedule in rebuilding ODU’s once proud women’s basketball program into a championship contender.

ODU won 21 games, finished fifth in the conference and lost, 74-60, to a bigger, more talented and more experienced Western Kentucky team Thursday in the conference quarterfinals.

That’s no disgrace. ODU is rebuilding, and it takes time.

But McCray is impatient. At game’s end, she stood at center court and talked with her players emphatically. Their crestfallen faces said it all.

This loss really, really hurt.

“For us, every day we step out on the floor we want to win,” she said. “Our kids are winners. They all came from winning programs.

“So this hurts because they’re not accustomed to this. I’m not used to it.

“I’m used to confetti falling on my head. I want to know what that feels like again. That’s what this program is used to. And that’s what my players want.”

Taylor Edwards said the WNIT will be give the ODU women "another chance to prove ourselves."

When McCray took over at ODU, there was little talent on the roster. That’s not all the fault of Karen Barefoot, the former ODU coach who resigned to take over at UNC Wilmington. Some of her better players transferred and recruiting had fallen off in part because Barefoot’s future at ODU was questionable.

Barefoot reinvigorated the program at UNC Wilmington, where the Seahawks finished third in the CAA and 18-11 overall. They began play in the league tournament late Thursday night.

I know and like Karen well and Wilmington is where my mother’s family is from – my uncle Berry Williams, my Mom’s brother, was once mayor of the city.

So I’m very happy for Karen and for my family and friends in Wilmington.

But it was clear that Barefoot wasn’t going to take ODU back into the top 25 and that McCray can.

McCray felt confetti dropping on her head in 2017, her last season as the top assistant coach at South Carolina. The Gamecocks won the national title, and that helped make her Wood Selig’s top choice when he began looking for a new coach.

McCray was a two-time All-American for the late Pat Summitt at Tennessee, was a long-time player and all-star in the WNBA and won two Olympic gold medals. She began coaching at Western Kentucky, where she was part of a Sun Belt Conference championship team, before heading to South Carolina, where she coached nine seasons and was doused in confetti when the Gamecocks won three SEC titles.

McCray took an overmatched ODU team to eight victories last season, signed nine newcomers in the offseason, then was by her mother’s side for months last spring and summer as she died of cancer.

Ajah Wayne, Maggie Robinson (left) and the Monarchs won 21 games after winning just eight last season. 

She put together a talented coaching staff, and Keith Freeman, Scepter Brownlee and Brittany Young took care of making sure the nine newcomers got settled in at ODU.

ODU won a ton of close games this season. Although relatively short, and so very young, they won a lot of games by outworking opponents.

ODU has already signed three newcomers, and imagine how much stronger and better the 12 returnees can become after an offseason in the weight room?

“Our offseason is going to be key for us,” she said. “We’ve got to work hard.

“I want championships. We have to train, we have to get mentally tough, so that we’re able to win championships.”

Her team isn’t done playing. She expects a bid from the WNIT on Monday.

She points to the success Rice had in postseason tournaments a step below the NCAA that helped lead the Owls to a 26-3 record and being ranked 24th in the Associated Press poll.

Rice won the WBI in 2017 and advanced to the second round of the WNIT last year.

The Owls rolled past North Texas, 61-43, Thursday and into the tournament semifinals in spite of playing in front of a partisan Mean Green crowd – UNT is only about a 20-minute drive from Frisco.

“The WNIT can be very helpful to a young team,” she said. “Look at what Rice did. They embraced it all to get to this point.

“I’m excited about our program. We’re making progress.”

And barring the unforeseen, we’ll see a lot more progress next season.