Matthias Schrader
August 21, 2016

RIO DE JANEIRO (AP) Russia won a hard-fought contest against France to take Olympic women's handball gold Saturday, drawing motivation from a speech by coach Evgeny Trefilov that emphasized the team's underdog status.

Neither of the finalists had been among the pre-tournament favorites - the French had never won an Olympic medal and Russia was emerging from a prolonged rebuilding effort. That all changed when Russia toppled two-time defending gold medalist Norway and France upset the Netherlands in the semifinals.

''We knew we didn't have the right to lose. We got fired up, prepared very seriously,'' Russia's Ekaterina Ilina said. ''(Trefilov) told us the French were happy to be playing us (instead of Norway), and that got us really angry.''

The team took the message to heart, grinding out a 22-19 victory at Future Arena that was the lowest-scoring final in Olympic women's history.

Russia held a small lead for much of the game, and would have scored more if not for some spectacular saves by the French goalkeepers. Russia's Anna Vyakhireva was the top scorer with five goals. France had several key players struggling with injuries.

Trefilov led Russia to four world championship titles between 2001 and 2009, but Olympic gold eluded his team, with only a second-place finish in 2008. The team declined sharply after he left, but Trefilov returned in 2013 to turn things around. That meant a fifth-place world championship finish last year, but Olympic gold never seemed in the cards.

Movement was the key for Russia's ''miniature'' team against physically stronger France, he said. ''If you're small, you need to run away.''

Trefilov has drawn attention for his colorful outbursts during the Olympics.

After one tight win in the group stage, Trefilov said he had wanted to ''hang everyone'' in the Russian dressing room at halftime. He was more relaxed following Saturday's win, but it didn't take long for him to return to his usual eccentric style, with praise for Brazilian food and a tirade against foreign coaches in Russian soccer.

''They won't fight for Russia,'' he said. ''In Russia we need a Russian coach.''

For France, the final was an unexpected success, and center-back Tamara Horacek said she hoped it would plant a seed of future growth.

''It was an exceptional game. We are happy. Of course we wanted the gold medal,'' she said. ''This arena is called the Future Arena, and regarding our future, I think nothing can stop us now.''

Earlier, Norway recovered from its semifinal loss to win the bronze medal, cruising to a 36-26 win over the Netherlands in a repeat of last year's world championship final. Tournament top scorer Nora Mork had seven goals to take her total in Rio to 62.

France plays Denmark in the men's final Sunday, after a bronze medal game between Germany and Poland.

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