Worlds Water Polo: Dogged Defense Helps Italy Stun the U.S., 8-7

Chiara Tabani of Italy celebrates during the women match between team United States of America (white caps) and team Italy (blue caps) at 20th World Aquatics Championships at the Marine Messe Hall B in Fukuoka (Japan), July 24th, 2023.
Chiara Tabani celebrates her fourth-quarter goal in the quarterfinals against the U.S. on Monday; Photo Courtesy: Andrea Staccioli / Deepbluemedia / Insidefoto

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Worlds Water Polo: Dogged Defense Helps Italy Stun the U.S., 8-7

Thunder boomed outside the Marine Messe Hall B in Fukuoka, Japan, on Monday afternoon. Inside, the pool hosted a lightning-strike rarity of its own.

Italy frustrated the American offense throughout the quarterfinal of the World Aquatics Championships, securing an 8-7 win to deny the Americans a chance at a fifth consecutive World title.

The seven-time champion Americans haven’t dropped a knockout game at Worlds since 2013, falling to Spain in the quarterfinals in Barcelona. They rallied to fifth place at that tournament.

The Americans had won 26 straight World Championships matches, dating back to 2015 … and a 10-9 group-stage loss to Italy. Among the victories was a 14-6 handling of Italy in the semifinals last year in Budapest.

Caterina Banchelli of Italy during the women match between team United States of America (white caps) and team Italy (blue caps) at 20th World Aquatics Championships at the Marine Messe Hall B in Fukuoka (Japan), July 24th, 2023.

Italian goalie Caterina Banchelli denies a shot from Maggie Steffens during the World Championships quarterfinals on Monday; Photo Courtesy: Andrea Staccioli / Deepbluemedia / Insidefoto

“Defensively to hold a team like that to eight goals is great,” said captain Maggie Steffens, who scored four times. “Defensively, I don’t think there’s much more that we could’ve done. But offensively, just executing our opportunities, and that’s what Italy did and that’s why they got the win.”

Sofia Giustini led Italy with three goals on three shots. Roberta Bianconi added two goals, albeit on 2-for-10 shooting. But it was all about Italy’s defense, led by nine saves in goal from Caterina Banchelli. That included a 1-v-1 denial on Steffens with 1:47 left and a bid to get within one on a superb setup that still wasn’t able to beat the Italian netminder.

Italy’s defense was best when things were toughest. They committed 20 exclusion fouls to the Americans’ seven. Yet the Americans were just 2-for-14 on power-play shots, a kneecapping 14 percent. (Italy was 4-for-5 on the power play, by comparison.) Italy also made eight steals. Only Steffens, with four goals, and Maddie Musselman with a pair scored for the U.S. before the game’s final minute.

“Tough game for us, to have so many opportunities,” Steffens said. “It seemed like we were having a bar party out there, and they were doing a great job forcing bad shots from us, forcing us to try to beat the block. They were playing with a ton of energy defensively, they got a lot of blocks, their goalie got a lot of blocks.”

The U.S. defense was great, too. It held Italy to just 3-for-25 on action shots, a woeful completion rate of 12 percent. Ashleigh Johnson made nine saves in goal.

The game was tied at 6 after three quarters, but America’s missed opportunities piled up quicker than Italy’s mountain of exclusions. Domitilla Picozzi blistered a long-range shot to give Italy a 7-6 lead. Banchelli stopped Ryann Neushul and Steffens on the same possession, the last an amazing save where she scrambled across the goalmouth to get a ball that was halfway across the line, so close that video review was called in to confirm it.

Banchelli stopped Musselman, who was just 2-for-9 shooting, on the next possession, just before Chiara Tabani lobbed Johnson to make it 8-6 with 2:57 left.

The U.S. still had time and drew Tabani’s third exclusion, then three straight on replacement Dafne Bettini, one of three players to foul out. But Musselman couldn’t get a shot to go, then Steffens had her effort from 3-meters saved.

A turnover with 60 seconds left and Claudia Marletta’s third exclusion allowed the U.S. to call a timeout and draw up a play for Jordan Raney to sneak one short-side past Banchelli with 21 seconds left. But it would prove too little, too late for the Americans, who never got the ball back.

Now comes something that the seven-time World Champ and winner of the last three Olympics Games doesn’t have much practice with: Bouncing back after a loss. With a youthful group, there are lessons to learn from the setback, however seldom they’ve had a chance to do that.

“The World Championships aren’t over,” Steffens said. “We still have two games left to get better. We have a young group, and these opportunities only come every so often, so for us, it’s about responding, being resilient, let’s just get better. We can learn from this game. We’re not done. There’s a long journey ahead of us, not just in this Worlds but in this Olympic quad.”

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