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SYDNEY 2000 / SUMMER OLYMPIC GAMES | VOLLEYBALL

U.S. Women Finally Hit Wall as Russians Knock Blocks Off

September 29, 2000|HELENE ELLIOTT | TIMES STAFF WRITER

SYDNEY, Australia — Almost to the end, they believed they could do it again, that they could pull out another match they weren't supposed to win and continue to make a mockery of the rankings that had placed them 10th in the world.

But the U.S. women's volleyball team finally ran out of surprises Thursday in the semifinals against a tall, powerful Russian team. After staving off two match points in the fourth game, the U.S. could find no more weaknesses to exploit, and Russia put away a 25-15, 23-25, 25-15, 26-28, 15-8 victory before a lively crowd of 9,031 in the Sydney Entertainment Center.

Russia will face two-time defending champion Cuba for the gold medal Saturday, preceded by the bronze-medal game between the U.S. and Brazil. Russia defeated Cuba in Group B preliminary-round play, and the U.S. lost its preliminary-round Group A match to Brazil in four games. A bronze medal would be the best showing by the U.S. since the 1992 Barcelona Games.

"I'm so proud of this team," opposite hitter Kerri Walsh said. "No one expected us to be here. We fought hard, and it's not over yet. We have one more match to play and we're going to play hard.

"The Russians are a great team. They're coached very well and they're tough. They don't make mistakes."

After a rocky first game in which they had difficulty adjusting to the Russians' style, the U.S. players improved their passing game and began to successfully run some set plays in the second game. They trailed early in that game but pulled ahead thanks to some good blocking and won the game when Heather Bown blocked a shot by Evgenia Artamonova.

Russia dominated the third game and appeared poised to roll in the fourth, taking a 12-6 lead. But the U.S. responded again, surviving one match point when Bown hit a winner and another when Artamonova served into the net. A cross-court hit by Tara Cross-Battle and a winner by Logan Tom gave the U.S. the game--and a bit of momentum.

"We realized the game was on the line and we gave it our all, which is what Team USA is known for, and we came out with a victory in the fourth game," said middle blocker Danielle Scott, who led the U.S. with 16 kills, four blocks and one ace.

Said Tom: "There wasn't really a big difference tonight. It feels like we're right there with them. We just wanted to go out and win. The only thing we had to prove is to ourselves."

But the Russians proved too formidable as the fifth game progressed.

The U.S. was leading, 7-6, until Elena Godina and Lioubov Chachkova seized control and helped Russia score six consecutive points. Outside hitters Artamonova, Chachkova and Godina were exceptional: Their average height is more than 6 feet 3, and all three used that to their utmost advantage Thursday. Godina, the tallest of the trio at 6-4, led her team with 28 kills, and Artamonova had a team-high six blocks.

"They just put up a wall," U.S. Coach Mick Haley said. "It's pretty obvious they use their size very well, because they use that high set and very high velocity, which causes our block a little more problems. Coming into this match we were one of the top blocking teams. They also turn around and block us.

"I thought we did some good things against their blocks. Then they use their height and size on jump serves. They're very intelligent in how they use their size."

Although merely getting this far could be considered a moral victory, U.S. players were not appeased in defeat.

"We came expecting to win a medal, and once we won the quarterfinal [against South Korea], we expected to win a gold medal," said Cross-Battle, the oldest U.S. player at 32 and a two-time Olympian. "We're very disappointed we lost today, but we still have a chance to win bronze, and we will try hard to do that. . . .

"Our team believed that even though we were ranked 10th we could win a medal. From the beginning of the Grand Prix until now, we improved more and more. A lot of people didn't think we could get this far, but we did. We will regroup for Brazil and go for the bronze Saturday."

Winning a bronze against Brazil, Scott said, would be a noteworthy achievement for a team that few expected to have such an opportunity. "I think it would be awesome for volleyball," she said. "It's a medal. It's top three. It should be a good match."

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