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ATLANTA 1996 OLYMPICS | WATER POLO

Medal Hopes Gone In a Splash Following Humbert's Ejection

July 27, 1996|ROBYN NORWOOD | TIMES STAFF WRITER

ATLANTA — Chris Humbert joined the illustrious company of Dennis Rodman, Nick Van Exel and Magic Johnson on Friday when he was kicked out of the game, in his case the U.S. water polo team's quarterfinal match against Spain.

For splashing a referee.

The Americans were already in trouble before Humbert's ejection at the end of the third quarter. But without their best player, their chance of a comeback dwindled and their medal hopes were ended by a 5-4 loss at Georgia Tech Aquatic Center.

This will be the second consecutive Olympics without a medal for the U.S. in water polo. After finishing fourth in Barcelona four years ago, the Americans can finish no higher than fifth here. The U.S. won silver in 1984 and '88.

Spain, which also ended U.S. medal hopes in Barcelona in a semifinal game, took a 4-0 lead before the wildly supportive American crowd that didn't see a U.S. goal until Jeremy Laster scored with 32 seconds left in the first half. Spanish star Manuel Estiarte's second goal gave his team a 5-1 lead in the third quarter.

Humbert, the flamboyant U.S. star, was being hounded by Spain's Jorge Paya as he tried to score at the end of the quarter. Believing he had been fouled, and getting no call, he let his frustration spill over. When the horn sounded, he splashed water toward Dutch referee Robert Tellegen with both hands, then dived underwater.

Tellegen tried to get Humbert's attention, apparently to give him a 20-second ejection, but Humbert kept swimming underwater. When he came up, he was tossed for good.

"The ref was blowing his whistle and he just swam ahead," Laster said. "He tried to show up the ref and it finally got to him."

American Chris Oeding scored two goals in the fourth quarter to pull the Americans back to 5-3 with 1:56 left, but the momentum never completely turned. Gavin Arroyo's goal that made it 5-4 wasn't scored until only two seconds remained.

Could Humbert have made a difference?

"Possibly," U.S. Coach Rich Corso said. "I thought [the call] was a little bit harsh. He obviously didn't say anything. He just splashed. It could have been in frustration. Obviously, the ref took it personally. . . . I might have reacted differently if I was the ref."

After his ejection, the 6-foot-7 Humbert slumped in the back row of the American bench, then refused interview requests after the game.

"The guys are devastated," Corso said. "It's not me so much, it's the 13 guys on the team and the 20 guys we had in training camp--it's for the players. . . . For guys like Chris Duplanty, Mike Evans, two-time Olympians, this was their last shot at a gold medal."

The U.S. defense did its part, holding Spain to five goals with solid team play and the goalkeeping of Duplanty. Spanish goalie Jesus Rollan made 11 saves, but didn't even have to make a play on some of the best American opportunities. Kyle Kopp, Rick McNair, Troy Barnhart Jr. and Wolf Wigo all hit either the crossbar or the goalpost, mostly from close range.

"We created great opportunities, we just didn't finish," Corso said. "Rollan's a very good goalie but I'm not going to give him the entire credit. We hit everything but the net."

Estiarte thought he saw pressure on the faces of the Americans.

"There was a lot of pressure on them," he said. "The first pressure game for the United States was against [defending champion] Italy because the chance to be first in the group was in play, and the United States played poorly. Today was another pressure game, and they didn't play well. We know that because we went through it in '92 in Barcelona."

The horde of fans trying to cheer the U.S. on might not have helped in the end.

"We were trying to use the home-court advantage and let it work for us," Evans said. "Unfortunately we went over to the point we were too nervous. We were hitting the crossbar, throwing shots out of the pool. That's just nerves."

The Americans play Greece today as the bottom eight teams continue playing to determine order of finish through 12th place.

In the medal round, Spain plays Hungary in one semifinal today, and Croatia meets Italy.

"We have a couple more games but they don't mean anything," Evans said. "It's very difficult. This takes the wind out of your sails and you kind of float on down to the bottom."

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