The 2021-22 season was supposed to be an opportunity for Nikki McCray-Penson to prove she belongs in the elite coaching ranks in women’s college basketball.
Now, she won’t get that chance.
On Tuesday, McCray-Penson stepped down from her position as Mississippi State’s head women’s basketball coach “to focus on her health,” the school announced.
McCray-Penson was diagnosed with breast cancer in November 2013, according to previous Dispatch reporting. She underwent chemotherapy and was declared to be in remission the following spring.
Mississippi State’s news release Tuesday did not specify if a recurrence of breast cancer was the cause of McCray-Penson’s resignation, but the second-year Bulldogs coach seemed to indicate that was the case.
“Over the past several weeks, I have been faced again with health concerns I had hoped were behind me,” McCray-Penson said in the release. “In light of these developments, I have decided to step away from coaching in order to devote my full time and energy to addressing those issues. Although I look forward to returning to coaching when I am able, I believe this is the best decision for me and my family at this time. I appreciate the support MSU has shown me, and I will be pulling for the team’s success this season.”
The former Old Dominion head coach went 10-9 (5-7 Southeastern Conference) in her one season at the helm of the Bulldogs after taking over the program from Vic Schaefer, who took the head coaching job at Texas in April 2020.
In many respects, it was a down season for Mississippi State, which won at least 27 games in its previous six seasons under Schaefer. The Bulldogs lost to LSU in the first round of the SEC tournament and missed out on the NCAA tournament for the first time since 2014. They received but declined a WNIT invitation.
After the season, five Mississippi State players — Xaria Wiggins, JaMya Mingo-Young, Sidney Cooks, Madison Hayes and Yemiyah Morris — all entered the transfer portal for various reasons.
“We appreciate the time and effort Coach McCray-Penson invested in our program and respect her decision to focus on her health and family,” Mississippi State athletic director John Cohen said in the release. “Throughout her time as a player and as a coach, Nikki has shown herself to be a competitor, and we fully support her as she takes some time away from the game to address her health concerns.”
Associate head coach Doug Novak, who joined McCray-Penson’s staff Sept. 7, will serve as the Bulldogs’ interim head coach while a national search is conducted.
Novak was most recently the head men’s basketball coach at Bethel University in Minnesota for the past eight seasons. His Royals teams went 131-68 and made their second-ever trip to the NCAA tournament in 2017.
Novak was also the top men’s assistant coach at Tulane and The Citadel from 2006 to 2013.
Now, he’ll be tasked with taking over a program for which expectations are consistently high. Schaefer led the Bulldogs to back-to-back NCAA championship game appearances in 2017 and 2018 and an Elite Eight bid in 2019, winning 104 games and losing just 10 over the course of the three seasons.
Mississippi State was poised to get back there in 2020 before the COVID-19 pandemic hit, canceling the rest of the season. Schaefer left to coach the Longhorns on April 7; on April 11, the Bulldogs hired McCray-Penson.
The former assistant for Dawn Staley at South Carolina ran into trouble from the start of her coaching tenure in Starkville, losing to South Florida in overtime on Dec. 5 in Tampa.
Home losses to Kentucky and Alabama followed as the Bulldogs ran off a five-game losing streak in the middle of SEC play. They won two of their final three regular-season games, but they couldn’t turn the season around.
McCray-Penson was hoping to do so this upcoming season with the additions of Tulane transfer JerKaila Jordan and sisters Anastasia Hayes (Middle Tennessee), Aislynn Hayes (Middle Tennessee) and Alasia Hayes (Notre Dame).
Now, that opportunity is up to Novak and whomever the Bulldogs choose to hire. Ohio State’s Kevin McGuff was among the potential candidates when Schaefer left, but with the season beginning soon, a major move for another school’s head coach is unlikely.
Mississippi State opens its 2021-22 season with an exhibition game against Mississippi College at 6 p.m. Nov. 1 at Humphrey Coliseum.
Theo DeRosa reports on Mississippi State sports for The Dispatch. Follow him on Twitter at @Theo_DeRosa.