U.S. beats the clock

Times Staff Writer

BEIJING -- The sports psychologist was at the ready. And when the U.S. women’s water polo team started to waver and squandered a three-goal, fourth-quarter lead, the question seemed to be whether Coach Guy Baker would book an extended appointment with USOC senior psychologist Peter Habrerl on the spot.

“I’m still getting over Sydney,” Baker said. “It’s one step at a time. We’ve got a lot of therapists around.”

But captain and spiritual leader Brenda Villa’s water-skimming, power-play goal broke the tie with a minute left, and the Americans hung on through two nerve-racking Aussie possessions. The second was a weak lob shot with six seconds left by Australia’s Rebecca Rippon, and the U.S. lost some long-term baggage as well as present-day mental angst.

The U.S. defeated long-standing rival Australia, 9-8, Tuesday in the semifinals at Yingdong Natatorium, and will play the Netherlands in the gold-medal game Thursday. The Netherlands defeated Hungary, 8-7, in the other semifinal.

Ghosts of Sydney, banished?

Well, that presumably won’t happen until gold medals are safely around their necks. There was the controversial loss with 1.3 seconds left to Australia at the Olympics eight years ago in the gold-medal game in Sydney, and another fourth-quarter collapse in the semifinals against Italy four years ago in Athens.


The American avoided a scare Tuesday, having thought they would be without Lauren Wenger for the final. Wenger, of USC and Long Beach Wilson High, injured her right (shooting) hand in the fourth quarter. Baker first thought it was broken and said she would be unavailable for the final.

But Wenger went to the hospital and had X-rays, and team officials said Tuesday night that it was only sprained and thought she could play Thursday.

The 6-foot-3 defender was merely the MVP at the world championships last year in Melbourne, Australia, and scored 11 goals in that tournament.

“We went through the course of the quarter and when we scored, I turned around to put her back in and they said she couldn’t go,” Baker said.

That was after Villa’s goal, which came following an exclusion on Australia. Villa managed to get open, displaying her quarterback-like vision, and it helped stabilize a reeling team.

“She sees things before they happen,” said teammate Kami Craig said. “She’s got to be in the right place at the right time to put in that final goal. I got some great passes from her today. I call it my Brendar. I put on my Brendar and see where she is. I find her and I know she’ll find me and hit a pass right on the hand.”

Said Commerce’s Villa, who scored three times: “I knew that we needed to turn it around. We finally put the ball in position to get a six-on-five. I started looking and I was like, ‘I’m going to take it.’ So I’m excited and a little relieved.”

Australia had trailed by three goals heading into the final quarter, and methodically chipped away at the lead, tying it at eight with Kate Gynther’s power-play goal with 2:27 left.

In addition to Villa’s hat trick, Brittany Hayes had two goals and goalkeeper Betsey Armstrong had eight saves. Sisters Rebecca and Melissa Rippon and their stepsister, Gynther, combined for six of Australia’s eight goals.

Adding an extra bit of spice in this provocative rivalry was an assist by Australia’s coach, Greg McFadden.

After his team defeated China, 12-11, in the quarterfinals, he told reporters Australia would beat the U.S. this time.

There may not be visible bulletin boards on these pool decks, but his comments did not go unnoticed by the U.S. camp.

“There are no secrets,” American Natalie Golda said. “Water polo is a small world and there are few very articles written on water polo, and yeah, we read it.”

Familiarity has its benefits. The U.S. and Australians, having played each other 15 times this year, have the best rivalry going in women’s water polo.

“It’s the Yankees-Red Sox,” Baker said. “We scrimmage and we get excited. You know it’s going to be a one-goal game.”