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U.S. women avoid elimination

8/22/2004

ATHENS, Greece -- Preliminary-round elimination would have
been a disaster for the United States.

Desperate for a victory, the Americans avoided embarrassment by
finally playing like a gold medal contender -- and like a team.

Logan Tom scored 19 points to lead the United States to a 25-22,
25-12, 25-19 win over Cuba on Sunday and a spot in the women's
volleyball quarterfinals.

"Hopefully it's just going to get better from here," said Keba
Phipps, who slammed the winning kill on match point -- prompting an
exuberant group hug near the net with libero Stacy Sykora in the
middle of it.

It might get better, but it won't get easier. The price for
finishing 2-3 in pool play is a pairing with unbeaten Brazil in
Tuesday's quarterfinals.

"I know Brazil is strong, but if we play as a team I think
anything can happen," American coach Toshi Yoshida said.

Surely the Brazilians can't be happy about a matchup against the
team that began the Olympics with the international federation's
top ranking.

Zoila Barros Fernandez had four aces among her nine points for
three-time defending gold medalist Cuba, which fell to third place
in the group and will play Italy in the next round. China takes on
Japan and Russia plays Korea in the other quarterfinals.

"It was an important match for us, but we could not overcome
our problems as a team," Barros Fernandez said through an
interpreter. "I am sure we will do it in the next round, though.
We will be much better from now on."

The Americans toughed out a tight first set, scoring the last
three points -- two on kills by Tayyiba Haneef and the last on a
sneaky poke by Tom of a ball that was floating unclaimed just above
the net.

The U.S. team took an 8-1 lead in the second set and sailed from
there -- quieting down a loud, pro-Cuba crowd that adorned a large
section of the upper bowl with Cuban flags and chanted their
country's name frequently throughout the match.

"Usually the Latin American teams are kind of feisty," said
American middle blocker Danielle Scott. "If you can kind of get
them chitchatting back and forth at each other, then you can get
them into making errors. You need to take advantage of that, and I
think we did a really good job of doing that."

Ever since a young, promising American squad finished a
surprising fourth at the Sydney Games, hopes have been high.

With Tom developing into one of the world's best outside
hitters, the return in 2002 of the veteran Phipps and dazzling
potential at the opposite position with the 6-foot-7 Haneef, the
Americans have been steadily moved into the world's elite.

But China reminded everyone who the gold medal favorite was,
opening with a commanding four-set victory. The Americans recovered
to beat Germany before their devastating blow -- a stunning five-set
defeat to the Dominican Republic.

While the U.S. team was markedly improved in its next match
against Russia, after a pep talk from the veterans on the
undefeated American softball team, the result was the same. It all
came down to this one.

"Russia, I think was a stepping stone for us," Scott said.
"We really started to concentrate on our team and not on
individuals -- playing for each other, which I think we had lost a
little bit.''

The softball players gave the U.S. team some bags of Skittles
and told them to use the chewy, fruit-flavored candy as "power
pellets."

"We were munching on them the whole game," Phipps said,
laughing.

Several of Cuba's stars from the past Summer Games have retired,
including the great Regla Torres -- named volleyball's top female
player of the 20th century. The Cubans finished a disappointing
sixth at the World Cup last year under new coach Luis Felipe
Calderon, who took over in 2002. And an upset loss to the Germans
on the first day of this tournament raised more eyebrows.

But they're still a powerful, athletic team -- as they proved in
wins over Russia, China and the Dominicans.

"We didn't perform well tonight," Calderon said. "We know the
team of the USA well. We have played against them many times. ... I
did not expect today's result."