US plays Brazil for gold

Aug. 21, 2008, 1:31 p.m. (ET)

BEIJING (AP) Jenny Lang Ping's homecoming has been marked by tragedy and triumph.

And, now, an Olympic medal.

The Beijing-born U.S. women's volleyball coach will lead her team in the title match on Saturday against Brazil.

The U.S. team is guaranteed their best finish in the Olympics since they won the silver in the 1984 Los Angeles Games. The U.S. was defeated in the final that year by China - with Lang leading the charge as the "Iron Hammer."

So nicknamed for her powerful spikes, Lang became a celebrity of Michael Jordan-like status in China. She was even honored with her own postage stamp.

The U.S. run in Beijing has been closely watched by the Chinese. The team's match against China in the preliminary round was attended by Chinese President Hu Jintao, although the host's fans were silenced at the end when the U.S. won it in five sets.

All the while, Lang has guided her team with a calm and steady hand.

But she let her guard down on Thursday when the United States defeated Cuba in three sets for the chance at the gold medal.

Lang threw her hands in the air and leapt to her feet after match point. She hopped up and down with her assistants. All of her players got hugs.

"She was squeaking like a little girl, she was like, 'Oh my God!'" wing spiker Logan Tom mused. "I expected to see her with pig tails, like a little school girl."

The U.S. improved to 6-1 in Beijing with the 25-20, 25-16, 25-17 victory. Along the way, the U.S. scored key victories over China and then Italy in the quarterfinals.

Before Thursday's match, Lang was met with hearty applause from the crowd at Capital Indoor Stadium. Chinese fans loudly cheered for the United States.

The Americans, who lost to Cuba in three sets in the preliminary round, jumped ahead 9-6 in the first set after Rosir Calderon's missed spike. The team held on to the lead the rest of the way, winning the set on Kim Willoughby's spike.

The U.S. women kept up the pressure in the second, going up 8-4 on Danielle Scott-Arruda's ace. Errors cost Cuba as the U.S. extended the lead to 15-8. Willoughby again scored set point with a spike.

The Americans rolled through the third set, going up 16-12 on Yanelis Santos' serve into the net. Then it was Willoughby again for match point, with a spike Yumilka Ruiz couldn't stop.

"It was unbelievable," Lang said afterward. "I am happy for myself, but I am more happy for the players. They deserve it, it's a players dream. They've worked hard for three or four years and cooperated well. It's not only these 12 players, we had to cut players who have worked very hard, so I'd like to celebrate with them as well."

The U.S. team has played through sadness in Beijing, after the parents of former Olympian Elisabeth "Wiz" Bachman McCutcheon were attacked at a tourist site following the opening ceremony. The players wrote "Wiz" on their arms and shoulders during their games in tribute.

Todd Bachman was fatally stabbed and his wife was badly wounded at the 13th century Drum Tower. The assailant jumped to his death from the tower.

Bachman McCutcheon is the wife of U.S. men's coach Hugh McCutcheon. Her parents were avid supporters of the U.S. team and often traveled to tournaments.

In addition to the silver in 1984, the U.S. women won the bronze in 1992.

Cuba, three-time Olympic gold medalists, went undefeated in pool play, then defeated Serbia in three sets in the quarterfinals. The Cubans won gold medals in 1992, 1996 and 2000.

The Brazilians rolled to a three-set victory in the other semifinal against China. Cuba will face China in the bronze medal match.