TAMPA, Fla. -- After it was over, the buzzer sounding to halt South Carolina's quest for a title with a 66-65 loss to Notre Dame in the national semifinals, Dawn Staley took her team into the locker room and she gave it to them straight.
Of course she did. It's the only way that one of the game's greatest competitors -- as a player and as a coach -- knows how to communicate.
"I told them that we came up short," Staley said. "Obviously we wanted to win the national championship, but I just hope they take note of how hard it is to get to this point and how hard it is to win a semifinal game and also how much it took."
It has, indeed, been hard for the Gamecocks over these past few games. They ground out nail-biting wins last week against North Carolina and Florida State to punch their ticket to Tampa. And then, the Gamecocks went and got themselves into a 15-3 hole to open the program's first-ever Final Four appearance, playing from behind for nearly the entire game before taking their first lead against the Irish with 1:12 to go on a layup by Aleighsa Welch.
After holding Notre Dame without a score for more than seven minutes, South Carolina couldn't hold the Irish just one more time. Notre Dame reserve Madison Cable scored on a putback after a miss by Jewell Loyd to give Notre Dame a 66-65 lead with 16 seconds to go.
On the final possession, All-American guard Tiffany Mitchell was trapped at the sideline without a good look at the basket, deflected by Hannah Huffman and then threw up a desperate attempt at the buzzer that went for naught.
"Anytime you end your season, it's a tough pill to swallow," said Welch. "I credit us, my teammates for still fighting and never dropping our heads. I think a lot of people thought we were down and out in the second half."
Sophomore Alaina Coates admitted there might have been some nerves for the South Carolina players in their first national semifinal.
"But I feel like we were able to suck it up and get over all that," Coates said.
Five times in the second half alone, South Carolina rallied from a double-digit deficit.
"We put ourselves in that position," Mitchell said. "At that point, it doesn't matter how much it took out of us. We still have to do it. We still have to play. I don't think we were thinking about being tired."
It wasn't a typical game for Mitchell on the stat sheet. Well-defended much of the night, she finished with 11 points and three rebounds. Freshman A'ja Wilson finished with 20 points and nine rebounds, much of that damage happening in the second half, and Welch closed her career with a tide-turning effort in the second half, scoring all 10 of her points in the final 20 minutes to go with a game-high 14 rebounds.
But the Gamecocks left points on the floor -- shooting 2-for-12 from beyond the 3-point arc and just 7-of-16 from the free throw line.
"That's key," Staley said. "But still we overcame that to put ourselves in a position to take the lead and had another possession after that."
Staley returns all but two players to the roster next season. She knows the sting is going to last a while and she's counting on it.
"We had a lot of firsts for our program," Staley said. "We had a very memorable year. And I want us to enjoy it, but I also want us to have a certain hunger, a certain bad taste in our mouth from experiencing and being so close to a national championship. It will fuel us to be better individually, and to be better collectively so we can get back to this point."