U.S. Women to Play for Water Polo Gold
Courtney Mathewson looks to pass the ball against Glencora Ralph of Australia during the women's water polo semifinal
LONDON -- Maggie Steffens scored four goals to help the United States outlast Australia for an 11-9 win in extra time to advance to the women's water polo final at the London Olympics.
In a bruising match between the two fierce rivals, the Americans appeared to have the win wrapped up in regulation after Australia captain Kate Gynther's shot rattled the crossbar in the closing seconds.
But with one second on the clock, U.S. coach Adam Krikorian called a time-out without his team having possession of the ball -- an automatic penalty. Australia's Southern Ash converted the ensuing penalty to level at 9-9 and force extra time.
"We looked at each other and said 'we've been through this before,'" Steffens said of the team huddle ahead of overtime. "Nothing's going to affect us. We're going to be the team that finishes this. We knew that whatever it came down to, we're going to keep fighting."
And in extra time they did just that, with Steffens leading the way on the offensive end.
The 19-year-old, who raised her tournament scoring tally to 16 goals, put the U.S. ahead halfway through the first of two three-minute overtime periods with a skip shot, before Kami Craig slotted home from close range to finish off the scoring and give the Americans another shot at their first gold medal in the event.
Even on a team with two four-time Olympians -- Brenda Villa and Heather Petri -- playing in their last games, there may have been no one more relieved on the U.S. bench than Krikorian.
"I was feeling horrible. There's thoughts that go through your mind. Man, I might have blown this one," he said of his time-out call. "It's all a bit of a blur, but ultimately I made a big mistake ... To be honest, after it happened, it took me a couple of minutes to take a deep breath and realize what I had done and get out of the funk."
But the team's response to his mistake, he said, was evidence of just how much the squad has developed since he took over in 2009.
"When you mess up, you've got to own up to it. They came over and I said, 'My bad.' This is not going to stop us," he said. "We've made mistakes before and we've overcome a lot of adversity over the last three and a half years so one stupid call by the coach isn't going to affect the team's performance."
The U.S. advances to Thursday's final, where it will face either Spain or Hungary, who play in the other semifinal later Tuesday.
The U.S., long one of the world powers in women's water polo, has medaled in women's water polo at every Olympics since the game debuted in 2000, but it has never won gold. It earned silver in Sydney, bronze four years later in Athens and then silver again in Beijing in 2008.
For Australia, the loss was doubly painful, coming four years after they lost to the U.S. 9-8 in the semifinals at the Beijing Olympics.
"It's pretty devastating after four years of hard work," Ash said. "We never gave up, but it just wasn't there at the end. Credit to the USA. They put up a very good fight."