It’s hard to imagine the USA women playing better than they did Friday in the Tokyo Olympics women’s volleyball semifinals.
That’s because they dominated throughout and swept Serbia to set up a gold-medal match Sunday against Brazil.
“Our team executed the game plan to near-perfection,” USA coach Karch Kiraly said.
Indeed. The UA won 25-19, 25-13, 25-23 to get to the gold-medal match for the second time in three Olympiads. The Americans — who have never won Olympics gold — lost in the final in 2012 in London to Brazil and won bronze in 2016 in Rio. And that was after losing to Serbia in the semifinals.
Brazil, which won gold in 2008 and 2012 but lost in the quarterfinals in 2016, swept Korea 25-16, 25-16, 25-16 later Friday.
“People say we’re going to be under so much pressure because we’ve never won the gold medal,” veteran outside Jordan Larson said. “But we’re under no pressure because we’ve never done it. Why not go out swinging?”
They were swinging from the get-go Friday. Annie Drews, starting again at opposite for the injured Jordan Thompson, led with 12 kills, two blocks, three aces, and two digs.
“We talk about it a lot: We’re 12 strong,” Drews said. “When your number is called you do your job. I’ve been a starter and I trust myself in that role.”
The match marked the return of the USA’s other injured player, setter Jordyn Poulter. Poulter, who sprained her ankle, too, the match after Thompson did, played all three sets againt Serbia and had 32 assists, two blocks, and five digs as her offense hit on all cylinders all match long.
Larson had 11 kills, two blocks, two aces, and eight digs, and the other outside, Michelle Bartsch-Hackly, had seven kills, two blocks, and eight digs.
Both middles, Foluke Akinradewo and Haleigh Washington, had five kills apiece.
“I thought we executed phenomenally,” Akinradewo said. “Before the match, I envisioned this for us. I envisioned us being clinical about it, executing the game plan and it was nice to see it come to life.”
Akinradewo had three blocks and two assists, while Washington had a block, an ace, and two digs.
“We were led by her superb blocking,” Kiraly said of Akinradewo. “She got some good swings today. This is the best she’s been offensively. She was serving up a storm. She was our first server and got us off to a wonderful start.”
Libero Justine Wong-Orantes had six digs and three assists.
A big key for the USA was slowing down Serbia’s Tijana Boskovic, who leads the Games in attacks. She led her team with 16 kills, but the big lefty had 14 errors in 41 swings and hit .122.
“(Boskovic) is one of the world’s great, great players, one of the most lethal,” Kiraly said. “She’s been winning her attacks at an average of .380-.390 percentage-wise and we held her to .120. That’s huge. We were hoping to keep her in the low .300s.”
“”I think this loss is due to a bad case of the nerves,” Serbia setter Maja Ognjenovic said. “We did not play at a high level. It wasn’t until the last set that we got our game together. We had energy but we also felt fear.
“We know the Americans very well and we thought this team was beatable, but their injuries did not affect them and we just didn’t get going until it was too late. We didn’t handle the pressure.”
After losing to Serbia in 2016, it wasn’t lost on the new and younger players the significance of the match.
“(The veterans) didn’t even need to talk about it,” Poulter said.”I think so many of us watched that match. I am sure there was a chip on their shoulders. All of us who play for the USA have been chasing history for so long.”
The USA this summer has won the Volleyball Nations League, going 16-1 along the way, and in these Olympics went 4-1 in pool play and have now beaten the Dominican Republic in the quarterfinals and then Serbia.
Kiraly, of course, didn’t know yet who his team would play.
“Korea used to play a tricky style, with players moving around, making crossing patterns. But now they have an Italian coach and Stefano (Lavarini) has them playing more like the Brazil-USA style,” Kiraly said.
“We emphasise ball control. Receiving the ball well and controlling the opposition’s serve so you can run a fast offence. On Korea, every server has a unique serve: one comes galloping in with a weird toss, one could come in dirty with weird spins on it. Korea is the surprise of the tournament. Brazil is the only undefeated team left. They are well coached.”
Either way, the USA, ranked No. 1 in the world, hopes to finally win women’s volleyball Olympics gold. The USA won silver in 1984, 2008 and 2012, and bronze in 1992 and 2016.
“It’s our whole pursuit,” Drews said. “We’ve been committed to the four-year and in this case five-year process. All eyes on gold.
“That goal has influenced every decision we’ve made. Every point scored has been a deposit toward that goal.”