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Water polo

Upstart Americans get to mine for gold against Hungary

By Mark Long
Associated Press / August 23, 2008
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BEIJING - American goalkeeper Merrill Moses swam to the center of the pool before the fourth quarter, picked up the ball, and kissed it for good luck.

He might want to stick to that routine.

Moses stopped 16 shots, including every one in the final period, and carried the United States men's water polo team to a 10-5 victory over Serbia in the semifinals last night. The Americans continued their improbable run in Beijing, advancing to the gold medal game for the first time since 1988.

They will play two-time defending gold medalist Hungary in the final tomorrow. The Hungarians beat Montenegro, 11-9, in the other semifinal.

"It's ineffable; it's hard to describe in words what it feels like," US player Jeff Powers said. "You set goals and once you reach that goal, you've got to keep going, right? The new goal is a gold medal. Let's go get it. Let's change history."

The Americans already have.

The team came to Beijing ranked ninth in the world, and few gave them much of a chance of bringing home a medal. But behind Tony Azevedo's scoring and Moses's goaltending, the Americans upset world No. 1 Croatia to win their group and pulled another shocker against Serbia.

The match was tied at 4 late in the first half, but Ryan Bailey's first of two goals gave the US the lead going into halftime. Bailey and Azevedo each scored on power plays in the third, staking the Americans to a 7-4 lead.

The Serbs looked sluggish the rest of the way. Part of it was having to play shorthanded after center forward Zivko Gocic injured his hand early and part of it was frustration from having little luck against Moses.

Moses turned aside long-range screamers, deflected skip shots from every angle, and even batted down a few from point-blank range.

"I knew I had to play the game of my life to keep us in this," Moses said. "It's my best game as of yet. But there's more to come. You'll see."

Azevedo's goal from the 2-meter area made it 8-5 with 4:04 to play, then Rick Merlo added a power-play goal a minute later.

Powers turned it into a laugher when his overhand shot with no time on the shot clock skipped by Denis Sefik and into the back of the net.

Moses stopped several more shots in the closing minutes, celebrating each with a scream that echoed through Yingdong Natatorium. As the final seconds ticked off the clock, he started splashing furiously in the pool and celebrating with teammates.

"He played amazing," Powers said. "He's played amazing the whole tournament. Merrill is coming up with some huge saves on his own. He's making the saves when they matter. He's playing fantastic."

It wasn't always that way, though.

Coach Terry Schroeder was so perplexed by Moses's inconsistency that he brought three other goalies to training camp to send him a strong message. Moses got it loud and clear, and has been the team's most valuable player so far in the tournament.

"Our goalkeeper was amazing," said Azevedo, who led the Americans with three goals, two assists, two steals and two blocks. "My smile still hasn't left my face. I'm tingling all over."

When asked whether the Americans could beat the Hungarians, who are looking to become the first country to win three consecutive gold medals in the sport since Great Britain did it in 1920, Schroeder was even more confident.

"Why not?" he asked. "This team has been on an amazing run and there's a lot of really good things happening. It's almost magical to watch them out there playing. It's one game, and for that one day, who knows."

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