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Four days after a thrilling NCAA women’s basketball final, Shaina Pellington had barely made a dent in replying to the countless congratulatory messages.

They poured into her phone and her social media feeds despite the loss.

How many messages?

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“Too many. Too many,” Pellington said with a laugh. “I might have to put out a general [message]: ‘Thanks guys, I’m going to get back to you.”’

“A lot of people congratulating me and the team, and saying they’re proud of us. It’s a bittersweet feeling knowing people supported us even though we didn’t win.”

The 21-year-old guard had 15 points, seven rebounds and three steals in 30 minutes off the bench in the Arizona Wildcats’ 54-53 loss to Stanford.

With the sting of a narrow defeat wearing off, the tournament is in ways a big win both for Pellington, who played this season after sitting out 550 days between college appearances, and for women’s basketball in general.

Pellington’s long layoff was partly because of the months the sport lost to the COVID-19 pandemic, and because she had to sit out a year after transferring from the University of Oklahoma.

She earned conference rookie of the year honours at Oklahoma, but her sophomore season came to a rocky ending amid accusations of mistreatment by coach Sherri Coale – not just from Pellington, but several former Oklahoma players.

An appearance in this year’s final had the sweet feeling of karma for Pellington.

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“For sure,” she said. “[Coale] would always harp on the [NCAA runner-up team she had in 2002], and how she didn’t think she’d ever see a team get that far ever again. All this different stuff. It was just kind of negative.

“Then to be able to do that with another team . . . that was a really surreal moment for me.”

Arizona’s coach Adia Barnes, meanwhile, was a star of this year’s tournament. Social media exploded after her fiery postgame team huddle that included an F-bomb and two middle fingers after her overlooked Wildcats knocked off Connecticut in the semi-final.

Then she famously pumped breast milk for six-month-old daughter Capri during halftime of the final. Pellington said while Barnes delivered her speech, players could hear the whirring pump of the machine.

“That was funny,” said the 5-foot-8 Pellington.

The title game also featured two Black female coaches for the first time in NCAA finals history.

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“I’m like ‘Wow, there’s a lot of hats,”’ Barnes told reporters last week. “It’s the former WNBA [player], it’s the Black woman, it’s the mom. But it’s a privilege for me. You can be great at all these things.”

While the NCAA women’s tournament was delivering fabulous storylines, it was also shattering viewership records.

“More people were watching this year than ever . . . that’s really cool.”

Now‚ Pellington will hopefully turn her attention to training for the Tokyo Olympics. She’s one of four NCAA players among Canadian coach Lisa Thomaidis’s 20-player Olympic pool.

Pellington, who played for the Canadian team in Olympic qualifying, hopes her NCAA tournament performance improved her chances to cement a spot in Tokyo.

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