Beijing, China, August 21, 2008 – USA shocked three-time Olympic champions Cuba in straight sets in the Women’s Olympic semi-finals to set up a gold-medal match against Brazil, who swept the defending Olympic champions China in the other last-four match on Thursday.
Seven-time FIVB World Grand Prix winners Brazil rocked the Chinese and their many supporters among the 13,000 who packed the Capital Indoor Stadium with a blistering display that earned them a 27-25, 25-22, 25-14 victory in 1 hour, 19 minutes.
The USA took six minutes less to rock the Cubans to their heels in a devastating display that saw them prevail 25-20, 25-16, 25-17 also in front of 13,000 at Capital Indoor Stadium.
The gold-medal match between USA and Brazil is set for Saturday, August 23, at 20:00 local time at Capital Indoor Stadium.
The bronze-medal match will be at 12:30 local time the same day at the same venue between Cuba and China.
Cuba 0 USA 3
The United States re-entered the Olympic women's Volleyball final for the first time in 24 years by shrugging off a straight-set loss to the Cuban high jumpers in the preliminaries and gaining sweet revenge.
The last time USA played in a gold-medal match was in the 1984 Los Angeles Games, where they lost to China, who were led that day by current USA Head Coach "Jenny" Ping Lang.
The two sides both started strongly and found themselves at 11-11, when the U.S. broke the tie with lethal spikes by Tayyiba Haneef-Park to lead 14-11. Danielle Scott-Arruda and Heather Bown helped to enlarge the gap to 24-20. With an unanswered spike of Kim Willoughby, USA took the opener 25-20.
The Americans dominated the second set with powerful serves, while Cuba lost their rhythm. Cuba's service errors at crucial points helped the U.S. take an effortless second set 25-16.
The Cubans seemed to have lost their willingness to fight in the decider, while Scott and Logan Tom kept launching brilliant spikes from the middle of the court and the back row. The Americans sailed on to claim a solid lead at 21-16. Cuba pulled back one point with a spike from Yanelis Santos, but that was the furthest they could go. The stunning Willoughby scored three points in row for the U.S. to seal their historic victory.
"I am happy for myself, but I'm happier for the players. They deserve it. They've worked hard for three or four years and cooperated well," said Lang.
"When we played Cuba, we lost in straight sets, but we never won in straight sets. But today when I was sitting on bench, I didn't have any worries -- especially the older players, they did a fantastic job," said Lang.
USA’s Willoughby attributed the win to the "unity" of the team: "We watched videos of the first match (against Cuba) and we said 'Hey, how can we played in such a flat way.' So, today, we came back and we played as a team, as one.”
USA’s Haneef-Park said: "Our goal all along the four years is to do what we didn't do in Athens, to get the gold medal, tomorrow a new day of practice and we will come out here to give what we can.”
Cuban Head Coach Antonio Perdomo said : "America played well. Our two main problems were service and service reception. In the preliminaries Cuba was better at service and service reception, but in the second game, America was better. If we played tomorrow, I wouldn't be able to predict a winner, because the two teams are equal."
China 0 - Brazil 3
A ruthless Brazilian team beat the defending champions and hosts China in a demolition, even though the Chinese started the brighter.
The Chinese were on form quickly, with spiker Li Juan and Zhou Suhong scoring early points to move the Chinese team 3-0 up in the opening set. Then Brazilian team answered with an excellent back-court attack from Sheilla Castro.
Trailing 5-1 behind, the South Americans found their range, and after a block from Paula Pequeno, Brazil cut the cushion to within one point, 5-4.
To a noisy home crowd, the Chinese team looked tight, making many unforced errors and Brazil took chances to level it at 12-all.
Then, much younger setter Wei Qiuyue came in for an underperforming captain Feng Kun. It worked effectively as Chinese spiker Wang Yimei, Li and middle blocker Zhao Ruirui racked up some fine winners to build up the lead once again.
The second technical timeout came with China in front 16-14, but it was the Brazilians who shrugged off tension to play their game, which helped them beat off two set points and then have two straight points to claim the set at 27-25.
The two teams battled hard in the second set, but the South Americans started to take control. Trailing 6-3 behind, China Head Coach Chen Zhonghe had the 19-year-old Wei replace Feng again but the Chinese were still playing below standard and especially had trouble in blocking and making too many mistakes.
Brazil brought up the second technical timeout ahead at 16-13 while China could never really pose a threat upon the opponents.
After Li and Zhao spiked long twice in a row, Brazil set up a comfortable 24-20 lead and converted on the third set point to take the set at 25-22 thanks to China's Zhou serving to the net.
Coming into the third set, the Chinese lost pace and were in serious trouble, with their defence falling to pieces. Brazil took the set 25-14 and the match.
Brazil captain Helia Souza said: "We played a little bit rushed at the beginning. We gradually calmed down and we played with determination. Finally, we won 3-0."
On the difference between the current Brazilian team and the Athens 2004 team, Souza said: "Compared with the Athens team we believe we staged a comeback. We're more balanced and confident and we've improved a lot. I believe that's the biggest difference."
On how they are going to approach the gold-medal match against USA, Souza said: "We're still thinking about the match against China. We set a high bar for us this game. We need to get rid of this thinking and start preparing against USA."
Men's semi-finals: Friday, August 22
12:30 USA-Russia, Capital Indoor Stadium, Beijing
20:00 Italy-Brazil, Capital Indoor Stadium, Beijing
Men’s finals: Sunday, August 24
10:00 Bronze-medal match
12:00 Gold-medal match
Women’s finals: Saturday, August 23
12:30 Bronze-medal match, Cuba-China, Capital Indoor Stadium, Beijing
20:00 Gold-medal match, USA-Brazil, Capital Indoor Stadium, Beijing
Volleyball legend Andrea Zorzi is blogging from Beijing with his popular "Follow Me" blog, linked to the FIVB website.