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U.S. women save coach after near disastrous blunder


LONDON -- The last thing you would expect to hear in London is a reference to Chris Webber and the 1993 NCAA Men's Basketball Championship Game. Nor is it a topic that comes up often in women's water polo, a sport that looks a little bit like synchronized drowning. Tough, physical athletes toil in relative obscurity, light years removed from the glare of big time men's collegiate basketball.

But when U.S. coach Adam Krikorian called a timeout he wasn't allowed to take with one second left in Tuesday's semifinal, the first thought -- at least in many minds -- was of Webber's similar gaffe.

Krikorian, whose team was leading by one goal at the time, thought the outcome might be just as disastrous.

"I was thinking I could have blown the game," he said.

Big points to Krikorian for his honesty. This is his first Olympics -- he took over from long-time coach Guy Blake in 2009 and struggled to gain his players' trust and build unity. He could be defensive, but instead of trying to insist that he was right or downplay his error, he owned up.

"It was a big blunder on my part," he said.

Krikorian thought that when goalkeeper Betsey Armstrong blocked a final-seconds desperation shot by Australia that she had retained possession of the ball, allowing him to call the timeout. But Armstrong didn't have the ball and Krikorian ended up pulling a full Webber.

After a long discussion by officials, Australia was awarded a penalty, which it converted to tie the game. The final second ticked off the clock and Krikorian was left frazzled, having grasped overtime from the jaws of victory.

"I didn't have the confidence and intensity we needed," he said. "I had to take a deep breath."

But his players didn't blink.

"We've dealt with a lot of adversity," said team veteran Brenda Villa, who is playing in her fourth Olympics. "I feel like we've been in that situation before and there's nothing you can do about it.

"Just go win the game."

Krikorian took strength from his unflappable players.

"The team picked me up today, which is the sign of a great team," Krikorian said. "They've handled a lot of adversity over the years, they can handle one stupid mistake from their coach."

The cool, collected bunch was led by its youngest player. Nineteen-year-old Maggie Steffens -- who will be an incoming freshman at Stanford next month -- scored her fourth goal of the game in the first overtime period to give the U.S. the lead again. Kami Craig added an insurance goal, the Americans held off Australia in the second overtime period, and the U.S. won 11-9. The Americans advanced to the gold medal game for the third time in Olympic history -- they will play Spain on Thursday.

"You know, you deal with what life gives you," said Steffens, who is wise beyond her years.

The water polo players said they were inspired by watching the resilient U.S. women's soccer team on Monday night. As the game stretched into overtime, and the Athletes' Village grew quiet, they knew they needed to go to bed and get their rest, but they couldn't turn it off. When the Americans won, the players gave silent high fives and muted cheers.

Then they went out and showed their own resiliency on Tuesday. Even their own coach -- and an echo of 1993 -- couldn't stop them.