Even blunder can't sink U.S. hopes

U.S. players celebrate after finally wrapping up their semifinal victory over Australia on Tuesday. Adam Pretty/Getty Images

LONDON -- When the match was finally over, when the referees blew their whistles one last time and brought an end to an afternoon of insanity, the U.S. women's water polo team explained itself by insisting it had prepared for days like this. The Americans had trained to be ready for anything.

It was hard not to laugh. Because they were lying. Nobody prepares for this. No team in sports has a moment in practice where it simulates being one second away from victory only to have a coach make a mistake so egregious that it costs his team a chance at victory and instead sends his players to overtime.

And yet that was the exact situation the Americans found themselves in Tuesday afternoon. Sure, they could laugh about it now, after they had persevered in overtime for an 11-9 win against Australia and a berth in the gold-medal match on Thursday. But they weren't laughing at the time.

With the final seconds ticking away in a match filled with ups and downs, scrapes, shoves and elbows, the Americans led 9-8 when Australia took its last shot on goal. The ball ricocheted off the cross bar, at which point U.S. coach Adam Krikorian thought it ended up in the hands of American goalkeeper Betsey Armstrong and called a timeout.

But the ball had sprung loose. And calling a timeout when you don't have possession in water polo results in a penalty shot for the other team. So, with :01 left, Australia lined up for its penalty shot, hurled it past Armstrong and sent Krikorian on his way to a lifetime of Chris Webber comparisons.

"I had the 'Oh, s---' moments," Krikorian would say later. "I had about two minutes of 'Oh, s---' moments."

Lucky for him, his players responded differently. While Krikorian stood on the pool deck and worried about what he had done, the players in the pool looked one another in the eye with an air of confidence.

"We didn't even blink," Kami Craig said. "You just have to move on. If they want to tie it up, they can tie it up. Fine. And we'll move on to the next thing, which was overtime. You just have to stay in that moment and not get too ahead of yourself."

It wasn't that easy for Krikorian. In the five-minute break before overtime, he called his team around him and apologized. "I told them, 'My bad,'" he said. "'My bad.'" He then barked instructions to his crew only to realize seconds later that he couldn't stop thinking about the mistake he had made. His confidence. His passion. His intensity. It was gone.

"I was standing there thinking that I possibly could have blown the game," he said.

So before he let his players get back into the water for overtime, he refocused and huddled them again.

"It was much different," he said. "I got in the moment and told them to just play out the situation. They had done it before and we needed to do it again."

To hear the players tell it, he probably didn't need to say anything.

"He kind of looked around at us, but we just sort of made eye contact with each other," said Maggie Steffens, who led the U.S. with four goals on five shots. "We decided that nothing could affect us. Sometimes it's fate, but you have to deal with it."

Steffens dealt with it best, scoring with 1:24 left in the first of two three-minute overtime periods to give the U.S. its lead back, 10-9. Kami Craig scored with three seconds left in the first period to then make it 11-9. And the Americans relied on stingy defense and ball control to hold on for the win.

Afterward, the only emotion was elation. Despite the scrapes and cuts on their tomato-red chests, despite the blood still oozing from some of their bodies, the Americans could feel no pain. Their only emotion was happiness. While their coach was overcome with relief.

"This is a team game and the coach makes mistakes as well," Krikorian said. "When the coach makes mistakes you need your team to pick you up. The team picked me up today. That's the sign of a great team."

With the win, the U.S. team's hopes for its first gold in women's water polo are still alive. The U.S. will play Spain, which beat Hungary 10-9 in the other semifinal. The U.S. tied Spain 9-9 during the preliminary round.

"One more game to go," Craig said. "We just gotta stay focused."