By Bruce Wigo
BEIJING, China, August 19. IN an exciting, action-packed semifinal game today in Yindong Natatorium, Team USA held off a furious comeback attempt by Australia and won a ticket to the Gold Medal match with a 9 – 8 win. The victory assured Team USA that it will continue its reign as the only team in history to win a medal in every Olympic Games where women's water polo has been contested. Their opponents will be the Netherlands, 8 -7 winners over Hungary in the other semifinal match.
Australia opened the scoring with a goal three minutes into the game, but the USA's Natalie Golda, assisted by team captain Brenda Villa, tied the score at one. Australia's Melissa Rippon fired a skip shot into the American net at 2:23, but lefthander Brittany Hayes fired in a rocket, knotting the game at two, to end the scoring in the first period.
Two minutes into the second, Moriah van Norman drew a penalty throw that was converted by Villa for a 3 -2 USA lead. Two minutes later, Jessica Steffens grabbed the rebound off a blocked Elsie Windes shot and tossed it into the net to make it 4 -2, USA. But Australia scored goals in each of their next possessions to tie the game at four before halftime.
The third quarter saw the USA score three unanswered goals by Kami Craig, Allison Gregorka and a spectacular goal by Villa, who received a cross-face pass at six meters and fired in high into the right corner of the Aussie net, without any hesitation. With a little over a minute left, Australia's Bronwen Knox and Hayes traded goals and the quarter ended with the USA on top, 8 – 5.
The fourth quarter had all the excitement of the debut Olympic women's final that took place in Sydney, eight years ago, but this time the Americans would prevail. Australia scored three consecutive goals to tie the game at 8 all, on a goal by Kate Gynther with 2:27 left in regulation. But at 1:20, the USA drew an exclusion and twenty seconds later, team captain Villa rifled her third goal into the Australian net and the American defense held on for the win.
In the other semifinal, Hungary jumped out to a two-goal lead before the Netherlands took control of the game in the second half. behind the scoring of Iefke van Beklum and Marieke van den Ham, who scored three goals apiece.
The Dutch win marks their return to the top level of women's water polo competition. Before 2000, the Dutch were the dominant women's water polo nation in the world and entered the Olympic tournament as the favorites.
But in Sydney, the Netherlands fielded a team of superstars who had passed their prime and they finished a disappointing fourth. At those Olympic Games, the USA beat the Dutch 6 -5 in the semi-finals to advance to the memorable gold medal game against Australia. This time around, the Americans are the favorites.
In the game for fifth, the Chinese, one of the great stories of this Olympic Games, knocked off defending Olympic Champions 8 – 5. The Chinese team ended their run losing three games by a combined total of three goals and cold very well have won a medal with a few breaks. With a team averaging 20 years of age and not one player over 21, the Chinese will be a team to be reckoned with in the future.