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U.S. men sluggish, fail to find rhythm

8/29/2004

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.