ROC men’s volleyball team rallies past Brazil in semis
TOKYO (AP) — The focus for the Russian Olympic Committee men’s volleyball team had started to shift to the fourth set of the semifinals when it fell behind by a big deficit to powerhouse Brazil in set three.
That ended up relaxing the players and led to an epic third-set comeback that sent the ROC into the gold medal match.
The Russians rallied from eight points down to win the third set and went on to deny Brazil its fifth consecutive trip to the gold medal game with an 18-25, 25-21, 26-24, 25-23 victory on Thursday.
“The third set is some kind of miracle,” ROC coach Tuomas Sammelvuo said. “It shouldn’t be possible. … They have very experienced players to play these kind of games. When you win the third set like this, you’ve got a huge amount of confidence and mental energy and there’s nothing that can stop you after.”
The ROC will play the winner of the France-Argentina semifinal for the gold medal on Saturday. Brazil will play the loser for the bronze after failing to make it to the gold medal game for the first time since 2000.
“We lost some points because their attack was very strong,” Brazilian captain Bruno said through an interpreter. “We didn’t block well and made some mistakes. … Now we’ll fight for the bronze.”
This marked the third straight Olympics that Brazil faced a team from Russia in the medal round, with the Russians winning the gold medal match in five sets in London in 2012 and the Brazilians sweeping the semifinal on the way to gold at home in Rio de Janeiro in 2016.
These countries have dominated the Olympics in recent years, with the Russians making the semifinals in seven straight Olympics and the Brazilians making the previous four finals.
Brazil took the first set 25-18 thanks to a strong blocking defense up front led by the masked middle blocker Lucas Saatkamp, known by Brazilians as Lucão.
The ROC did a much better job on the attack in the second set and won it 25-21 on a spike by Egor Kliuka. That led to some heated talk among the Brazilian players between sets as they tried to regroup.
It seemed to work as Brazil went up 20-12 in the third set before the ROC rallied. Back-to-back blocks by Ivan Iakolev tied the set at 23 and then Ilyas Kurkaev ended it at the net on the Russians’ second set point.
“The third set was something,” Sammelvuo said. “I think everybody just relaxed on the court. We just played and then point by point we came back and saw there was a chance. Everyone was focused on the next set, so we wanted to rest some players. … We had patience and heart in the crucial moments.”
The ROC played from ahead in the fourth set thanks to a string of four service errors on five attempts by Brazil.
The Russians then closed it out on an attack point from Kliuka and started celebrating, with some players falling to their knees in disbelief.
“We didn’t expect we were going to win,” captain Igor Kobzar said through an interpreter. “Of course we had hope, but we didn’t expect it.”
While the first semifinal featured two of the sports’ heavyweights, the teams in the second matchup didn’t have the same kind of pedigree.
France is in the semis for the first time in five Olympic trips after upsetting Pool A winner Poland in a five-set match in the quarterfinals. Argentina has won only one medal in the sport, a bronze in 1988, and made its only other semifinal in 2000.
The women’s semifinals will be held Friday, with the United States taking on Serbia in a rematch from the 2016 semis that the Americans lost and undefeated Brazil facing South Korea.
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