BEIJING (AP) Kim Willoughby's tears of joy were understandable.
She won a spot on the U.S. women's volleyball team just four months ago, and now she's playing for an Olympic gold medal.
The United States defeated Cuba in three sets Thursday to advance to the final in Beijing, guaranteeing the Americans their best Olympic finish since 1984.
The U.S. will play Brazil for the Olympic title in Saturday's gold medal match. The Brazilians defeated China, which will play three-time gold medalists Cuba for the bronze.
Willoughby helped them get there, with spikes that capped each set for the Americans.
"I just kept thinking, 'You can't tip the ball, you've got to hit the ball.'" she said, adding with understatement: "It worked."
Afterward, she smiled and waved to the crowd with tears streaming down her face.
The U.S. improved to 6-1 in Beijing with the 25-20, 25-16, 25-17 victory. The team's best finish in the Olympics was a silver medal at the 1984 Los Angeles Games.
Coach Jenny Lang Ping, a sports icon in China, jumped from her chair with her arms raised in a rare show of emotion. Her team gathered in a huddle at midcourt, raising their clasped hands.
Cuba's Nancy Carillo sobbed uncontrollably on the other side.
"We lost because of our mistakes," she said. "We didn't play at all."
Shadowed by tragedy at these Olympics, the Americans have drawn considerable support from the Chinese because of Lang. She is a former star of the Chinese national team who led her country to the gold medal in the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics.
Before Thursday's match, she 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 Willoughby's spike.
The U.S. women kept up the pressure in the second, going up 8-4 on Danielle Scott-Arruda's ace. Tayyiba Haneef-Park and Heather Bown were effective in stopping Cuba's high-jumping spikers.
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.
In Beijing, Willoughby has played different roles for the team, moving from middle blocker to opposite as a substitute.
"If Jenny tells me to be the libero, the water girl, anything, I'll do it to help the team win,' the 27-year-old said.
Lang said the team has really tested Willoughby over the last four months since she joined the team.
"In the first two matches, she was very tight - this is her first Olympics and she was nervous," Lang said. "As the games went on, she learned a lot. She's a great substitution player for us."
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.
The U.S. team earned its place in the semifinals with key victories over China in preliminary pool play and over Italy in five sets the quarterfinals.
Cuba 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 team won the bronze in the 2004 Athens Games.
American wing spiker Logan Tom was asked about the United States' final match in Beijing.
"I want the gold. We've spent years and years of hard work, sacrifice and dedication," she said. "A lot of these girls, we've sweat, bled and cried together."