USA v. Serbia

[Terry Schroeder] recalled how in 1988 Russia “threw” a match to face the United States in the semifinals, rather than Yugoslavia. The ploy motivated the Americans to knock out Russia.

“If Serbia gets that far, we’ll be ready for them,” he said.*

They were ready.

Merrill Moses led the US, backed by a very stingy defense, to a shocking 10-5 victory over Serbia to gain a berth in the gold-medal match. It ranks among the greatest victories in US water polo history even without taking into account the enormous turn-around taken by the program and the quality of opponents faced in this year’s Olympic tournament. A monumental result on all levels.

Moses was spectacular in goal, making 16 saves (Soro and Denis Sefik, considered by some to be the best goalie in the world, made one for the Serbs and was replaced). The defense was opportunistic and well organized, effectively blocking shooting angles and keeping the usually sharp-shooting Serbs from nearly any clean shots from the perimeter.

Offensively, the US was patient and composed, taking advantage of a goalkeeper not at his best and showing the kind of creativity that typically marked US polo during its most successful runs. Ryan Bailey played a monstrous game, drawing ejections and scoring from two meters effectively for the first time all tournament, showing the kind of strength and intensitity ususally reserved for the massive Balkan centers. Tony Azevedo emerged from forced hibernation to score three times, once on a beautiful back door shot that beat Sefik who was barely late to the block. And Jeff Powers stunned the Serbs with a eight-meter cross cage dart to barely beat the shot clock, effecively ending the game with three minutes remaining.

Schroeder already had his players believing. Now he has US water polo supporters on his side. All that remains is to convince the Hungarians.
Some running notes from the game:

1st Quarter

  • A very boisterous Serbian crowd actively jeering US possessions.
  • Krumpholtz draws another ejection, and Azevedo scores quickly from 4 position. Could beating Sefik quickly be the intention?
  • Serbia is spreading the US out very broadly. Could be a very difficult offensive game.
  • Hudnut scores from 6 position on man up. Could Serbia implode? Composure and patience should win.
  • Serbia passes so effortlessly on extra man; a beautiful inside score.

2nd Quarter

  • Bailey works hard for the inside water ejection. A good sign.
  • Lethargic 6 on 5 defense allows Vujasinovic goal
  • Followed by the first offensive of the match. Hopefully not a trend, as in other games.
  • Beaubien left way too alone at 1 position, and scores quickly man up. Serbian defense seems kind of disinterested.
  • US now leads, 5-4, after drawing very back court ejection. Bailey strongarms one from 2 m. Let’s see how Serbia reacts.

3rd Quarter

  • From the bench: “this is our quarter!”
  • Bailey draws ejection then scores with 6-3 pass. Playing HUGE.
  • Serbia moves the ball so beautifully on extra, but misses half lob.
  • Yet another quick save by Merrill. “Merrr-illl Merr-illl!”
  • Serbia earns two consecutive ejections. Tony pushed way out at 1 position but beats Sefik again. He’s not playing well.
  • Serbia calls time out. Lots of screaming at the bench. USA quietly meets. Schroeder is a quiet leader. But then a quick turnover, possession back to US.
  • Second live substitution by US. Seems a waste of possession, but up 7-5.

4th quarter

  • Let’s see how chippy things get if US maintains, extends lead.
  • US getting extended very far on offense.
  • Merr-ill! Two more quick saves.
  • Jessie brutality violence exclusion for elbow.
  • Serbia responds with strike to the face – ejection.
  • Yet another man-down save. Extremely opportuntistic defense. Tips, blocks, deflections
  • Tony inside water back door!
  • Hutten Hudnut is bloody.
  • Sapic excluded. Going to get chippier.
  • Merlo scores man up! 9-5, 3 minutes remain.
  • “Use the clock! Use the clock!”
  • Serbia still sings from the stands.
  • POWERS FROM 12 meters [more like eight meters upon review]! UNBEILIEVABLE.

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