Nikki McCrae Benson, basketball star and coach, dies at 51

Nikki McCrae Benson, an All-American guard for the University of Tennessee’s women’s basketball team, a two-time Olympic gold medalist and three-time WNBA champion, died Friday. She was 51 years old.

Her death was announced by Rutgers University, as she was about to enter her second season as an assistant coach for the women’s basketball team. The school did not say where she died or give a reason. McCrae-Benson was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2013.

“Thank you my little sister, my friend, my pit partner, my teammate, my fast food eater, my basketball junkie, my fellow Olympian, my gold medalist, and now my angel,” said Don Staley, women’s basketball coach at the University of South Carolina, where he worked McRae Benson assistant coach for nine years, wrote on Twitter.

At Tennessee, McCrae-Benson was a two-time All-American and three-time All-American in the Southeastern Conference. She helped lead the Lady Vols to three consecutive regular season conference titles and two conference championships.

She started as a defensive specialist, but has evolved into an offensive powerhouse.

“It bothered her that she was considered so much a defensive player,” her Basketball Hall of Fame coach, Pat Summitt, told Nashville’s Tennessee newspaper in 1994, late in McRae-Benson’s breakout season, when she averaged 16.3 points a game. junior. “She wanted to develop the full game, and she did.”

In the same article, McCrae-Benson said, “I had to learn to respond when criticized and learn from mistakes. Pat won’t motivate you.” She added, “You have to come up with an attitude about yourself, and that comes from maturity.”

Sally Jenkins, a sports columnist who has collaborated with Summit on three books, said in a phone interview that there is a special connection between the coach and McRae-Benson. “Pat glowed when Nikki came to visit,” she said.

She added, “There were a lot of guys who came to Tennessee who were like 15-story buildings, but the elevators only went to the 10th floor. Some kids found a way to get to the top and develop all their promise. Nikki was one of those.”

After graduating from Tennessee State in 1995 with a bachelor’s degree in education, McCrae-Benson became part of the American team that would win the gold medal at the 1996 Summer Olympics in Atlanta. After an early round win over South Korea, in which McRae-Benson led the team with 16 points and nine rebounds, she said, “We want to be the best basketball team in history.”

Overall, she averaged 9.4 points per game in the tournament and provided some stifling defense that limited opponents scoring. Four years later, when the American team won the gold medal in Sydney, Australia, McRae-Benson averaged 5.1 points.

By then, she had turned professional. With Columbus’ stint on the short-lived NBA, which predated the WNBA as a women’s league, An average of 19.9 points per gameHe led the team to the league championship in 1997 and was named Most Valuable Player.

She didn’t stay with ABL for long. She jumped after one season to the Washington Mystics of the WNBA, created by the National Basketball Association.

“I saw what the NBA could do to promote women’s basketball,” she told The Associated Press in 1997.

Starting in 1998, she spent four seasons with the Mystics, An average of 15.4 points a game He was selected to three All-Star Games. She had less success over the next five years, when she played in Indianapolis, Phoenix, San Antonio, and Chicago. She retired in 2006.

She quickly transitioned into coaching: She served as an assistant women’s coach at Western Kentucky University for two years before moving to South Carolina in 2008, where she joined Staley, a teammate on the 1996 and 2000 Olympic teams.

After helping lead South Carolina to its first NCAA women’s basketball title in 2017, McCrae-Benson was hired to her first head coaching job, at Old Dominion University in Norfolk, Virginia. She has coached the team to a 53-40 record over three seasons. In the 2019-20 season, she led the Monarchs to a 24-6 record and was named Conference USA Coach of the Year.

In 2020, she was named head coach at Mississippi State University, but resigned due to health reasons After going 10-9 in her only season there.

In 2022, Rutgers hires her as an assistant.

“Simply put, Nicky is a winner,” Rutgers coach Cookies Washington, who was a teammate of McRae-Benson with the NBA’s Indiana Fever, told the Associated Press. “You have outdone the highest levels of our game.”

Benson McCrae was entered in Women’s Basketball Hall of Fame, in Knoxville, Tenn., in 2012.

Born Nikki Kisanjan McCray on December 17, 1971 in Collierville, Tennessee, her survivors include her husband, Thomas Benson, and son, Thomas. Her mother, Sally Coleman, died of breast cancer in 2018.

“We know there is no cure,” McRae-Benson told The Clarion Ledger Jackson, Ms., in 2020. “We live with it. Every day, don’t let it define you. You live life. You make every day count. That’s what I saw my mom do.”