BEIJING (AP) The U.S. women's volleyball team advanced to the gold medal game, defeating Cuba in three sets Thursday to guarantee the Americans their best Olympic finish since 1984.
On Saturday, the United States will play Brazil for the Olympic title.
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.
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.
"I just kept thinking, 'You can't tip the ball, you've got to hit the ball.'" Willoughby said, adding with understatement: "It worked."
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.
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 grasped 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."
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's best finish in the Olympics until now was a silver medal at the 1948 Los Angeles Games. They also 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.