And the coach paid tribute to defender Laura Bassett, whose stoppage-time own goal sent Japan into Sunday’s final as 2-1 winners.
England - for whom Dinnington’s Jade Moore had an excellent tournament - had responded to Aya Miyama’s penalty by equalising through Fara Williams, also from the spot, but Bassett diverted Nahomi Kawasumi’s 93rd-minute cross into her own goal.
“Look, Laura Bassett’s name’s on that scoresheet but she’s epitomised this England team this tournament,” Sampson said.
“She’s been courageous, strong and kept this team together. She didn’t deserve that but she’ll be looked upon as a hero, an absolute hero. People will remember the Laura Bassett who headed and blocked and tackled and kept this team together.”
Midfielder Williams added: “Laura feels she’s let everybody down but I’ll tell you now, that girl has given everything in this tournament and she should be proud of herself.”
Japan’s first goal also carried an element of fortune, with Claire Rafferty’s foul on Saori Ariyoshi clearly outside the penalty area - as demonstrated by a picture tweeted by the England full-back after the match.
Back-up goalkeepers Siobhan Chamberlain and Carly Telford limited themselves to broken-heart emojis and, asked what he had said to his players, Sampson responded: “Just ‘It’s okay to cry’.
“They left everything out on that field and it’s just a really tough way to go out of the tournament. The team didn’t deserve that but I’m just so proud of them.
“We came to this tournament as huge underdogs with the weight of a nation on our backs, the sceptics and critics, and they’ve really inspired a nation back home. They deserve to go back home as heroes.”
Captain Steph Houghton, Bassett’s central defensive partner, said: “There are no words to describe it really.
“The only thing I’ve got to say is I’m so proud of all the girls, all the staff, we’ve been on an amazing journey.”
That journey is not quite over yet, with a third-place play-off against Germany to come on Saturday - the day before defending champions Japan tackle the United States in a repeat of the 2011 final.
Houghton added: “Football can be cruel at times but we’ll hold our heads high and try to pick ourselves up to go and play against Germany on Saturday. We want to try and finish third if we can.”