US women’s water polo team advances to final against Italy

RIO DE JANEIRO — The 13 members of the U.S. Olympic women’s water polo team didn’t shout or pump their fists. Instead, they huddled in a tight circle on the pool deck at the Olympic Aquatics Stadium on Wednesday. They exchanged a few hugs and low-key smiles. The real celebration could wait.

Minutes earlier, the U.S. defeated Hungary, 14-10, in the semifinals to advance to the gold-medal game against Italy on Friday.

The U.S., defending Olympic champion, can become the first country to win back-to-back golds since the sport was introduced to the Games in 2000.

As the defending world champion and heavy favorite entering the tournament, the U.S. knows exactly what it wants.

“We don’t just want to be on the podium, we want to be on the top of the podium,” center forward Kami Craig said. “That’s our main focus.”

Added center back Melissa Seidemann: “We were always dreaming gold. We set out to win and that’s what we’re going to do.”

In the same pool where Michael Phelps and Katie Ledecky combined to win nine gold medals during the eight-day swimming competition, the U.S. women kept Hungary’s physical team on the defensive much of the contest.

That’s in keeping with the ultra-competitive nature of the U.S. team.

“We could be playing dominoes back at the apartment and they would all want to beat me and beat each other,” U.S. coach Adam Krikorian said. “This group hates to lose and that makes my job much easier. It’s as much of a mental challenge as it is a physical challenge.”

Midway through the first quarter, however, the U.S. fell behind 2-1 and trailed for the first time at the Games. This isn’t unusual for virtually every other team here. But the U.S. isn’t your ordinary team. During the first four games of the tournament, it outscored opponents, 47-17.

The deficit lasted 44 seconds.

Seidemann tied the score off a shot from the outside. Less than two minutes later, Maggie Steffens, the captain, scored the first of her team-high four goals, and the U.S. never relinquished the lead.

Krikorian wasn’t thrilled with the defensive effort. The U.S. held Hungary to six goals during the preliminary round, but star goalkeeper Ashleigh Johnson, a stalwart during the first four games, wasn’t the same against Hungary’s offense-minded group.

Rita Keszthelyi led Hungary with four goals, though Barbara Bujka, the team’s dangerous center forward, managed only two goals thanks to early foul trouble and aggressive U.S. pressure.

“We didn’t lose focus, but I do think we could’ve done a better job defensively,” Krikorian said. “We haven’t given up 10 goals in a long time.”

Italy, which last won women’s water polo gold in 2004, defeated Russia, 12-9, to advance to the championship game.

“It’s easy to stay in the moment with these bigger games as we get closer to the end,” Craig said. “Now we’re looking forward to that final game. It’s on to Italy.”