ATHENS, Greece, August 24. The U.S. women missed a shot at gold by two seconds on Tuesday, falling 6-5 to world No. 2 Italy in the Olympic semifinals at the Olympic Aquatic Centre Main Pool, according to USA Water Polo reports.
The Americans led the contest 4-2 entering the final period and, just as they had in their earlier loss to Canada, suffered a bit of a meltdown toward the end, being outscored 4-1 in the final period, to see victory slip from their grasp with just two seconds remaining.
Before this loss, Team USA had reached the gold- medal game in eight straight international tournaments. Seven of those resulted in gold. Now, the United States is in a rematch of the 2000 Olympic final, facing 2000 gold-medalist Australia in the bronze-medal game at 5 p.m. on Thursday (August 26).
Greece's 6-2 semifinal win over Australia puts the Olympic host in the gold-meal game with Italy at 6:15 p.m.
"Our goal was the gold medal, but now that's gone," U.S. attacker Brenda Villa (Commerce, CA/Stanford/Commerce) said. "I guess that's part of the sport. We came here for a medal and we must finish the quest — now it is a bronze. The sport is all about the highs and the lows. The ultimate is to win a gold medal. It's an emotional state of being in sport, dealing with the ups and downs. We signed up for the Olympic Games and we will see it through."
Against Italy and in front of a crowd of over 7,000, Team USA's two-goal lead entering the fourth quarter melted away with three straight scores from Italy. Ellen Estes (Novato, CA/Stanford) tied it up 5-5 to break a string of four 6-on-5 misses by the U.S. women, and Team USA was poised to settle in on the final possession of the game until an offensive foul turned the ball back into Italian hands with 18 seconds left.
Manuela Zanchi scored from the left side with two seconds remaining to dash the USA's hopes of gold.
"I'm sad and disappointed, it all came down to the very last play," U.S. defender Robin Beauregard (Huntington Beach, CA/UCLA/New York AC) said. As expected, the game between the top two world powers was highly physical. An early U.S. exclusion led to the first power play of the game for Italy, and Cinzia Ragusa put the Italians up 1-0. The Italian defense broke down on its next possession, and Villa took full advantage of the one-on-one situation with Italian goalie Francesca Conti, drilling in the score to make it 1-1. U.S. goalie Jackie Frank (Long Beach, CA/ Stanford/Golden West) made a stop on Italy's next 6-on-5 shot and pulled down a later Italian lob attempt. With 41 seconds left in the first, Team USA earned its first power play. Kelly Rulon (San Diego, CA/UCLA/San Diego Shores) found Heather Petri (Orinda, CA/UC Berkeley) two meters out. Petri drilled it in crosscage, and the U.S. women were up 2-1.
In the second quarter, Team USA went up on a power play again. After working the ball around, Ericka Lorenz (San Diego, CA/UC Berkeley) lofted a crossing pass to Margie Dingeldein (Merced, CA/Stanford) on the left side, and Dingeldein ripped it in for a 3-1 lead. Italy earned a 6-on-5 next, and Estes smacked down the shot for a big field block. Italy finished off the following power play, however, getting a score from Alexandra Araujo that pulled Italy within one at 3-2. Frank got a finger on another Italian lob to put Team USA on the attack, but Heather Moody (Green River, WY/San Diego State/New York AC) got tagged with an offensive foul at two meters to turn it back over.
The U.S. women took that one-goal margin into halftime and Frank protected it once again with a 6-on-5 stop, and Conti answered with one of her own. U.S. center/ defender Amber Stachowski (Rancho Santa Margarita, CA/UCLA) pressured Italy into two ball-under calls and then dished out an assist to Thalia Munro (Santa Barbara, CA/ UCLA), who deposited the ball nearside to make it 4-2 USA with 3:43 left in the third.
Beauregard threw out a field block against Italy's third power play of the third period, and Italy was left scoreless in the frame. Team USA's eighth player to get excluded was Estes, and Italy finished off the opportunity with a score from Giusy Malato at two meters. After the USA missed its fourth straight 6-on-5, Italy came down and converted its second straight on a score by Tania Di Mario. That leveled the game at 4-4 with 4:06 on the clock. Di Mario lobbed in the go-ahead score for Italy two minutes later, and it was 5-4 entering the last two minutes of play.
"Italy played a really physical game," Beauregard said. "It was extremely tough out there."
Villa and Maddalena Musumeci received a dual exclusion, and then Estes earned a power play for the USA at 1:24. Estes put the finishing touches on the opportunity off a pass to two meters from Lorenz, and the game was locked 5-5 with 1:11 to go. Team USA got set for the last possession of regulation, but an offensive foul turned it back over to Italy. The ball ended up in Manuela Zanchi's hands on the left side, and with two seconds to go, she put away the game-winner for a 6-5 decision.
"It is a difficult moment for us," U.S. captain Heather Moody (Green River, WY/San Diego State/New York AC) said. "We did not expect to be out of the final."
Team USA 2 1 1 1 — 5
Italy 1 1 0 4 — 6
Team USA: Villa 1, Petri 1, Dingeldein 1, Munro 1, Estes 1
Italy: Di Mario 2, Ragusa 1, Araujo 1, Malato 1, Zanchi 1
Team USA: Frank 5
Italy: Conti 4
Player Advantage Scoring
Team USA: 3 for 7
Italy: 4 for 9
Referees: Gabor Kiszelly (Hungary), Zoran Tomic (Croatia)
Delegate: William Shaw (Canada)
Fifth place: Russia 12, Hungary 11 (OT)
Semifinal 1: Italy 6, USA 5
Semifinal 2: Greece 6, Australia 2
Final Group A Standings Win Loss Tie G.F. G.A. G.D. Points
Australia 2 0 1 22 16 +6 5
Italy 2 1 0 20 14 +6 4
Greece 1 1 1 17 20 -3 3
Kazakhstan 0 3 0 16 25 -9 0
Final Group B Standings Win Loss Tie G.F. G.A. G.D. Points
Team USA* 2 1 0 20 16 +4 4
Russia 2 1 0 21 22 -1 4
Hungary* 1 2 0 19 20 -1 2
Canada 1 2 0 16 18 -2 2
* — Team USA earned tiebreaker through head-to-head win over Russia;
In the fifth-place game, Russia battled back against Hungary to force overtime. There, the Russians worked to a two-goal lead. Hungary cut into that by one but could not even things, and Russia claimed fifth place.
The U.S. women will get the chance to end the Olympics on a winning note in the bronze-medal game at 5 p.m. on Thursday (August 26). That game will be a rematch of the final of the 2000 Olympics, where Team USA met up against host Australia. The Aussies won gold in 2000, but haven't finished at the top of any major international tournament since then. The last time the United States tangled with Australia was at the Kirishi Cup in May. Team USA notched a 7-4 win over the Aussies and went on to win the tournament title. In the 2000 Olympic final, the U.S. women took silver after a 4- 3 loss in Sydney.
Team USA's game is scheduled to be aired starting at 12:40 p.m. ET on NBC on Thursday (August 26). (Olympic television coverage is always subject to change, so check your local listings.)