CLEVELAND, Tenn. (WRCB) -- The sting of a season-ending loss was still overwhelming for Lee University women's basketball on its ride home from Tuesday night's NAIA national championship game.
Playing in the national final for the first time in school history, the Lady Flames dropped a hard-fought 71-65 decision to Westmont (Calif.) in Frankfort, Kentucky. It was a seemingly disappointing end to a banner season.
But soon after returning to the Cleveland campus Wednesday, the team started finding some perspective.
"We had people come up to us and congratulate us," said junior guard Rachel Lockhart, a former Sequatchie County High School star. "They weren't saying sorry (about the loss). They were congratulating us for what we did."
It will take some time for all of this year's accomplishments to truly sink in, but the warm welcome on campus started the process.
"Now that you look back on it and see what we've done and accomplished and what we fought through to get here, it's amazing," said former Polk County High star Hollie German, who earlier this week was named an NAIA All-American.
Three years after the school's first "Fab Four" appearance, a group of four seniors led the Lady Flames back.
Lee rode a shocking upset of top-seeded Oklahoma City in the Elite Eight to eventually advance to the national title game for the first time in school history, and the seniors who remembered their first Fab Four trip made sure to relish every minute of this year's journey.
"It definitely meant more winning these games," said senior guard Julia Zimmerman. "I don't think there was a lot of pressure (because it was our last year), but I definitely understood it all more as a senior than a freshman."
Lee won a single-season school-record 34 games en route to the unprecedented heights, taking the program to its highest point as it prepares to make the jump to tough competition in NCAA Division II next season.
"From the time I was five until now, that's all I wanted was to play for a national championship," Lockhart said. "It doesn't matter what level you're at. I got to compete in it and that was amazing."
The success came amidst a season of adversity.
Head coach Marty Rowe said it takes a certain a type of player to come together and stay positive after losing key starter Madison Lee to a season-ending knee injury before the year started.
The Lady Flames' resolve was tested again when an assistant coach suffered an emotional personal tragedy on the team's preseason retreat.
"We're a family," Lockhart said. "I've never been on a team like this before. I love every single person, from the first person next to me on the bench to the 25th person on that bus with us."
Rowe smiled wide upon hearing those words.
"That's what makes me the most proud of this team. The fact they care for each other," said Rowe. "They keep each other in line and keep each other accountable, but more than anything they care about each other."
And they learned quickly how much the Lee community cares about them.
Rowe noted the off-the-court success this year's team enjoyed with four academic all-Americans and seven academic all-conference performers, which earned the group respect long before their tournament run.
Now he's happy to see them get some added recognition for what they've accomplished on the court, as well.
"You don't think that people understand all the time what you go through to get here," Lockhart said, "but with us being so close here in this community, they really do understand and they're genuinely so proud of us."
And that makes it easy to put Tuesday's loss behind them, even if it was the national title game.
Their reflections will forever be about the journey to get to the game's biggest stage, especially the two week tournament stretch, instead of the end result once it got there.
"Just to beat everyone's expectations of where you were supposed to end up, whether it ended the way we wanted to or not, I wouldn't trade it for anything," German said. "(That tournament) was the best ten days of my life."
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