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U.S. women’s volleyball team advances to semifinals with victory over Japan

Jordan Larson-Burbach, left, of the U.S. in action against Nagaoka Miyu, second left, Shimamura Haruyo, second right, and Ishii Yuki of Japan during the women's volleyball quarterfinal match on Tuesday.
(Michael Reynolds / EPA)

Patience has been a key word for the U.S. women’s volleyball team at the 2016 Summer Games.

The world’s No. 1-ranked team, facing pressure to come through with a gold-medal performance, has adopted a point-by-point, set-by-set mentality.

“If you get ahead of yourself,” middle blocker Rachel Adams said, “that’s when you miss some steps and you’re in trouble.”

Their methodical approach paid off Tuesday with a 3-0 quarterfinal victory over Japan that might have looked straightforward on paper but required a certain amount of grinding.

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Time and again, the Japanese found ways to stay alive in points, forcing the U.S. to keep hammering away.

“We know they’re a team that’s never going to give up,” libero Kayla Banwarth said. “So they definitely pushed us.”

The Americans are trying to earn their first Olympic championship after silver-medal finishes in the last two Games.

Heading into Tuesday’s match at Maracanazinho Arena, they had lived up to their top-billing, sweeping through the preliminary round with five consecutive victories.

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If an early 3-2 win over the Netherlands was close, it reinforced a message that Coach Karch Kiraly — the only player in Olympic history to win gold in indoor and beach volleyball — has been repeating to his players.

Take nothing for granted, he has told them.

In the quarterfinals, Japan set the tone by keeping the score close through much of the first set. The Americans might have been taller — they average about 6 feet 3 across the front row — but the Japanese have forged a reputation for defense, quickness and tenacity.

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“I put all of my efforts, thoughts and mind, everything into this,” Miyu Nagaoka said.

The 5-10 Nagaoka led Japan with 13 kills, doing her best to match the work of the Americans up front, but the U.S. closed out the first set, 25-16, with a double-block from Foluke Akinradewo and Karsta Lowe.

The 25-23 second set was closer, turning on a pair of clutch spikes by Jordan Larson-Burbach. Then, in the third set, Japan went on a 7-0 run highlighted by Haruyo Shimamura’s service ace.

By that time, the crowd was fully behind the underdog.

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“The only time people cheer for us is when we’re in America,” Banwarth said. “So they’re cheering for anyone else but us overseas.”

Banwarth helped secure the 25-22 set — and the victory — by diving, reaching, getting the most important of her seven digs.

“When she makes plays,” Adams said, “it makes everybody else jump on and want to make plays along with her. She drives our defense.”

The victory moved the U.S. into a Thursday semifinal against Serbia, which it defeated in pool play, 3-1. plays A potential final against No. 2-ranked Brazil looms.

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Not that the Americans are looking too far ahead. As captain Christa Harmotto Dietzen put it, “We are now one step closer.”

david.wharton@latimes.com

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