U.S. men sluggish, fail to find rhythm

Updated: August 29, 2004, 11:02 AM ET
Associated Press

ATHENS, Greece -- After charging over to complain about a call, Lloy Ball gave the padding around the referee's chair a hard, two-handed shove. When his spike attempt was blocked at the net, Kevin Barnett picked up the bouncing ball and chucked it about 50 yards into the seats behind the court.

Signs of the U.S. team's frustration were everywhere Sunday as it was swept by powerful Russia in the bronze-medal volleyball match.

Alexey Kuleshov scored 16 points to lead the Russians past a sluggish American squad that struggled to get its spikes past the towering Russian block.

"It's just so disappointing to have this opportunity to get back on the medal stand and not play your best,'' outside hitter Reid Priddy said.

Alexander Kosarev's kill shot glanced off Riley Salmon's arms to end the match at 25-22, 27-25, 25-16 and extend the U.S. team's medal drought to three Olympics.

The silver medalists in 2000, Russia bounced back from a lopsided loss to Italy in the semifinals. Brazil beat Italy in four sets to win the gold.

"Unfortunately we could not fight in the final for the gold,'' Russian coach Gennady Shipulin said, "but I think my team had the potential.''

Shipulin had a serious talk with his team after Friday night's sweep by the Italians.

"They had no right to come out and play like they did against Italy,'' he said. "No right.''

After winning three of five in the preliminaries and mounting an incredible comeback to beat crowd favorite Greece in the quarterfinals, the Americans' respectable run came to a rather ugly end -- they failed to win a set in their final two matches.

While the U.S. team made great strides since a disastrous 0-5 showing in Sydney four years ago, the weekend proved that the Americans are just not quite ready to be included in the world's elite with Brazil, Italy, Russia and Serbia-Montenegro.

"It always seems like everyone else comes up with like an ace late on us or a great dig,'' Ball said. "We just haven't done that yet, and that's because a lot of the teams we play have more experience and they play against better teams than we get to.''

The Americans just weren't able to capitalize on their advantage over the Russians in athleticism, and they continued to search unsuccessfully for the offensive rhythm they had earlier in the tournament.

"It's frustrating to not have it physically,'' said Priddy, the team's second-leading scorer who had only four points. "You just feel so drained, especially when your teammates are counting on you to provide some emotional encouragement.''

American frustration built up over the course of the match.

Serguey Tetyukhin had two vicious kills near the end of the first set, then a few close line calls went against the Americans. The U.S. team wasted game point twice in the second set and lost when an official ruled Ball reached over the net on a set, with Russia leading 26-25.

That's when Ball went over to voice his displeasure with the call -- and blow off some steam on the blue foam pad at the base of the referee's chair. Ball picked up a yellow-card violation that handed Russia the first point of the third set.

Copyright 2004 by The Associated Press