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ATHENS 2004

Rally by U.S. Stuns Greeks

Trailing, 20-12, in the fourth set and five points from elimination, the Americans battle back to win in five and advance to the semifinals against Brazil.

August 26, 2004|Bill Dwyre | Times Staff Writer

ATHENS — With an effort that will be talked about in international volleyball for years to come, the United States men's team produced, in one emotional, gut-wrenching Wednesday evening, both an incredible result and a Greek tragedy.

The U.S. defeated Greece in five sets, 25-20, 22-25, 25-27, 25-23, 17-15, to advance to the semifinals of the Olympics against Brazil. One more victory will put the Americans in the gold-medal game.

There were close to 14,000 Greeks and a handful of Americans in Peace and Friendship Stadium, and probably a thousand Greek flags. And so, the stadium was rocking for the match between teams with 3-2 pool records.

The volume really turned up when, at a set apiece, the U.S. got to set point at 24-23 of the third set. Greece's Theodoros Chatziantoniou, a key front-liner at 6 feet 8, made a spectacular block to save the set point but came down on the side of a teammate's foot. Greece had saved the point but lost one of its stars.

Seemingly energized by his loss, the Greeks battled to a set point and won it when the U.S. blocked a kill wide. While the crowd went crazy, the Greek team high-fived the still stricken Chatziantoniou.

The emotional moment carried the Greeks right into the fourth set, where they took leads of 6-0 and 8-1. When the Greeks stretched the lead to 20-12, it seemed as if the U.S. was finished.

But somehow, the Americans chipped away and took a 24-22 lead with a 12-2 run.

Kevin Barnett's spike on the second set point sent the match to a 15-point fifth set.

With the stadium transformed into an echo chamber and Greek flags waving everywhere in anticipation of the close-out, the U.S. was looking up a 12-9 mountain and somehow climbed it again. They even faced a match point, but Antrej Kravarik failed to get his serve in.

On the U.S. match point at 16-15, the Greeks hit long and the U.S. team collapsed in celebration and disbelief.

The Greek captain, Marios Gkiourdas, went after the floor referee, screaming that the U.S. had touched the net on the play and demanding justice.

The Greek coach, Stylianos Prosalikas, confronted the other referee while the rest of his team collapsed on the court in various stages of disarray, some of them pulling on the net to stress their belief that there had been a foul.

It took several minutes before enough calm could be achieved to allow the teams to shake hands and leave.

The drama continued in the mixed media zone. Gkiourdas screamed at a Greek reporter and gestured angrily.

Greek officials wrestled him away to, of all places, the main interview room, where the soap opera continued.

Gkiourdas bemoaned the lack of support for Greek volleyball and said that all anybody in Greece would remember now was his team losing a 20-12 lead.

"Our efforts are not appreciated," he said. "Now, the journalists get to write what they want, and we, the athletes who work so hard, are lost. It isn't fair."

The theme continued with Prosalikas.

"Maybe when I get older," he said, "the memories of this will fade and I will be able to forget these difficult times. It is so unfair because this result will have such an effect on how people judge us.

"It will be decades before we recover from a defeat and the 20-12 lead we lost."

As demoralized as the Greeks were, the Americans were hardly touching the ground.

"I not only have never played in anything like this before," said Palmdale's Ryan Millar, the former Brigham Young star, "but I have never seen anything like it.

"You are down, 20-12, in a deciding set, you are dead. The word incredible doesn't even work. More like impossible."

Tom Hoff, the former Cal State Long Beach star, had a similar perspective.

"You spend four years of your life, training for about 10 hours of competition," he said. "And then, to be in a game like this in the Olympics, a game that will never be forgotten ... "

Hoff had no words to finish.

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