US women advance to Olympic water polo final
LONDON (AP) - Adam Krikorian made a terrible blunder, and it almost cost the U.S. a spot in the women's Olympic water polo final.
Lucky for him, Maggie Steffens and Kami Craig were there to pick up their beleaguered coach.
Steffens and Craig scored in overtime Tuesday after Krikorian handed a last-second penalty to Australia, and the Americans held on to win 11-9 and advance to Thursday's final against unbeaten Spain.
In a bruising match between the favorites coming into the London Games, the Americans appeared to have the win wrapped up in regulation after Australia captain Kate Gynther's shot rattled the crossbar in the closing seconds.
But with one second on the clock, Krikorian called a timeout without his team having possession of the ball - an automatic penalty. Australia's Southern Ash converted the shot to tie it at 9 and force overtime.
"We looked at each other and said 'We've been through this before,''' Steffens said of the team huddle ahead of the extra session. "Nothing's going to affect us. We're going to be the team that finishes this. We knew that whatever it came down to, we're going to keep fighting.''
And the Americans did just that, with Steffens leading the way on the offensive end.
The 19-year-old Steffens, who raised her tournament-leading tally to 16 goals, put the U.S. ahead halfway through the first of two three-minute overtime periods with a skip shot, setting of raucous "USA! USA!'' chants from the crowd in the packed water polo arena in the Olympic Park. Then Craig slotted home from close range to finish the scoring and give the Americans another shot at their first gold medal in the women's event.
Even on a team with two four-time Olympians - Brenda Villa and Heather Petri - playing in their last games, there may have been no one more relieved on the U.S. bench than Krikorian.
"I was feeling horrible. There's thoughts that go through your mind: 'Man, I might have blown this one,''' he said of his timeout call. "It's all a bit of a blur, but ultimately I made a big mistake. ... To be honest, after it happened, it took me a couple of minutes to take a deep breath and realize what I had done and get out of the funk.''
But the team's response to his mistake, he said, was evidence of just how much the squad has developed since he took over in 2009.
"When you mess up, you've got to own up to it. They came over and I said, 'My bad.' This is not going to stop us,'' he said. "We've made mistakes before and we've overcome a lot of adversity over the last three and a half years so one stupid call by the coach isn't going to affect the team's performance.''
The U.S., long one of the world powers in women's water polo, has medaled in the tournament at every Olympics since the game debuted in 2000, but it has never won gold. It earned silver in Sydney, bronze four years later in Athens and then silver again in Beijing in 2008.
For Australia, the loss was doubly painful, coming four years after it lost 9-8 to the U.S. in the semifinals at the Beijing Olympics.
"It's pretty devastating after four years of hard work,'' Ash said. "We never gave up, but it just wasn't there at the end. Credit to the USA. They put up a very good fight.''
In Tuesday's other semifinal, Anni Espar Llaquet scored four goals to lift Spain past Hungary 10-9 and into the final in the country's first ever appearance in women's Olympic water polo.
"We wanted to play and win every single match with the objective of making it to the final, and we've done that,'' Spain captain Jennifer Pareja said. "We started a four-year project, brought in a new coach and put the emphasis on young players with the goal of making the Olympics, and now we're in the final.''
It will not be the first time the U.S. and Spain have played in London. The two teams tied 9-9 in the preliminary stage after the Americans let a three-goal lead slip away late in the fourth quarter.
Hungary will take on Australia in the third-place game, which will be a rematch of the bronze medal match four years ago in Beijing that Australia won in a penalty shootout.
Ryan Lucas can be reached on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/relucasz
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