U.S. women avoid elimination

Updated: August 22, 2004, 6:26 PM ET
Associated Press

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."

Copyright 2004 by The Associated Press