COLUMBUS, Ohio -- All throughout the postseason, Mississippi State coach Vic Schaefer said he didn't have words for how he'd feel when his four seniors, including daughter Blair, had played their last game for the Bulldogs.
He found the right things to say now that it has happened. But they didn't make him or anyone else on Mississippi State's side feel any better. Because this loss was crushing. Up as much as 15 points, the Bulldogs fell 61-58 to Notre Dame on Arike Ogunbowale's last-second 3-pointer in the national championship game Sunday.
"The integrity and the character of this group is something I've not seen," Schaefer said. "I'm proud to be their coach. I'm proud of their fight. They're going to be so successful in life because of their grit, their determination, and how they embrace the grind of life as well as the grind of basketball."
All true, but it did nothing Sunday to ease the sting of losing in the NCAA final for the second year in a row. If there's any program that understands that feeling, though, it's Notre Dame. The Irish twice lost back-to-back finals in 2011-12 and in 2014-15. Tennessee lost two in a row in 2003-04. And nobody has had it worse than Auburn, which lost three championship games in a row in 1988-90.
Or you could look at LSU, which went to the Women's Final Four five seasons in a row -- 2004-08 -- and lost in the semifinals each time.
None of this, though, will help the Bulldogs in the immediate aftermath of a game that they no doubt feel got away from them. After holding Notre Dame to a season-low three points in the second quarter and taking a 30-17 halftime lead, they were outscored 44-28 in the second half.
The Bulldogs lost only twice this season -- the other time was in the SEC tournament final to South Carolina -- and both times were held in the 50s in scoring. Mississippi State held a five-point lead with 1 minute, 35 seconds left, but then Marina Mabrey hit the Irish's first 3-pointer of the night.
A miss by Mississippi State center Teaira McCowan was followed by her fourth foul on the rebound attempt, and then Notre Dame's Jackie Young tied the score with a jump shot. Another McCowan miss was followed by a Mabrey rebound, and then a frenetic sequence that ultimately cost Mississippi State dearly.
At Notre Dame's end, Mabrey's pass was stolen by McCowan. She got the ball to point guard Morgan William, who had teammate Victoria Vivians in front of her going to the basket. Mabrey then chased after William, ran into her and knocked her to the floor but wasn't called for a foul.
In the process, William lost the ball, and it went to Young, who had two Irish players streaking toward the basket. McCowan tried to block Young's pass and hit her arm. It was less contact than Mabrey had made on William, but it was called for a foul, McCowan's fifth.
Still, the Irish had to make the game-winning shot on an out-of-bounds play with three seconds left, which they did.
"We didn't deny the ball," Vivians said of the final play, when Ogunbowale got the inbounds pass from Young. "Me and [Roshunda Johnson] were supposed to deny her and not let her catch it. So she caught the ball and we got shut off, and she made it."
Vic Schaefer took the blame for the defeat.
"You're up five with 1:40 [left], it's my job to get them home, and I didn't get them home," he said. "I'll wear that, maybe for the rest of my career."
That's far too harsh a statement for Schaefer, who has built this program into what it has become.
Last year, after an epic semifinal upset of UConn when they ended the Huskies' NCAA-record 111-game winning streak with a buzzer-beating shot in overtime, the Bulldogs fell to SEC rival South Carolina in the final.
This year, Mississippi State was trying to become the third SEC team to win the women's basketball championship (which would have also been the first national title in school history, for men's and women's teams). Tennessee has eight NCAA titles, the most recent in 2008.
The ascent of Mississippi State and South Carolina -- two programs that dramatically increased their fan bases and their footprint on the sport -- has been a major storyline in women's basketball the past few years.
Schaefer took over in Starkville in 2012-13, after several successful years as an assistant at Texas A&M and Arkansas for Gary Blair. Before Schaefer's arrival, Mississippi State had won only nine NCAA tournament games -- with one trip to the Sweet 16 -- in the program's existence. Schaefer's Bulldogs have won 10 games in the NCAA tournament in just these past two seasons.
Before Schaefer, the Bulldogs had never beaten SEC titan Tennessee. And even in their successful years, they never really seemed to capture much attention in Starkville.
But that changed with Schaefer, who followed the pattern he'd seen work at Texas A&M of a head coach working hard to engage the fans.
Of course, it takes results, too. And he got those. The senior class of Vivians, William, Blair Schaefer and Johnson won 126 games, and their SEC regular-season title this year was the first for any women's sport at Mississippi State.
McCowan comments on tough loss to Notre Dame
Junior Teaira McCowan joins SEC Network's Nell Fortner to discuss the Bulldogs' performance in the national title game.
When they look back on this game, they will no doubt see missed opportunities and far too many turnovers (15). The offense became stagnant and hesitant in the second half. McCowan -- who shattered an NCAA tournament record with 109 rebounds -- looked a bit tired Sunday after logging so many minutes this season. She was 7 of 19 from the field (36.8 percent) Sunday after shooting 67.2 percent in her previous five NCAA tournament games this year.
Vivians ended her college career with 21 points and nine rebounds and is expected to be a first-round WNBA draft pick on April 12. The only other Bulldogs player who scored in double figures was McCowan with 18, to go with her 17 rebounds.
McCowan is the only starter who will return for next season. Although she is technically old enough to declare for the upcoming WNBA draft, she said Sunday she would not do that. Asked her thoughts on being the Bulldogs' leader for 2018-19, McCowan said in a quiet Mississippi State locker room, "I'll have them ready."
Vic Schaefer said the team's theme all this season was, "One more," after falling a victory short of winning the NCAA title last season.
"Notre Dame made one more play tonight," he said. "So we congratulate them."