U.S. must beat Cuba to gain medal round

ATHENS, Greece -- The U.S. women's volleyball team began the Olympics with golden aspirations. Now it's just hoping to make the medal round.

Not even a surprise pep talk from the unbeatable U.S. softball team could end this puzzling slump.

Ekaterina Gamova had 28 points and the match-winning kill to lead powerful Russia to a five-set victory over the United States on Friday, 20-25, 25-17, 20-25, 25-18, 15-11.

The Russians (3-1) clinched a spot in the quarterfinals and will finish pool play against China on Sunday.

The Americans (1-3), who carried the world's top ranking into this tournament, must beat three-time defending gold medalist Cuba to move on. If they lose, they're done.

The Cubans clinched a berth in the medal round with a three-set victory over the Dominican Republic, and China did the same by sweeping Germany.

"It's been an emotional rollercoaster," said Tayyiba Haneef,
who had 25 points.

She was encouraged by a meeting with the U.S. softball team, which has yet to allow a run in seven Olympic victories a few miles up the coast.

Some of the softball players spotted middle blocker Danielle Scott walking around the athletes' village Thursday night and asked to speak to the volleyball team about overcoming unexpected

At the 2000 Sydney Games, the seemingly invincible softball team lost three straight at one point and was on the verge of elimination before turning things around and winning a gold medal.

"They told us the tournament isn't over until it's over," Haneef said. "We still have one more match. If we give everything we can and go out and take that game, then anything can happen."

Russia's longtime coach Nikolay Karpol was unhappy most of the match -- as usual.

The 6-foot-8 Gamova typifies the Russians -- tall, lean and tough. They responded to Karpol's early scoldings, dominating the second and fourth sets before taking control of the final frame.

"We wanted badly to win," libero Elena Tyurina said through a translator. "We came to fight and to get as high as we can."

The Americans put themselves in a hole two days ago with a stunning five-set loss to the Dominicans. They were distraught when they left the Peace and Friendship Stadium court following the defeat -- and some of them were in tears.

Those thoughts were quickly purged with an impressive first set. Logan Tom finished it off with two kills -- one spike and one sneaky tip over the net that Gamova couldn't handle -- to put the U.S. team in front.

The Americans retook the lead in the third set, too, behind six of Tom's 24 points. They just couldn't quite build enough momentum to bypass the Russians in the fifth.

Their tall triple block made it tough for Haneef to find her swing.

"We've played them many times," she said. "We're used to it. Tonight, we just struggled a bit to find a way around it."

Brazil, the tournament's only unbeaten team, sealed a spot in the quarterfinals with sweep of Greece. Korea and Italy also assured themselves of advancement with victories over Japan and
Kenya, respectively.

The Greeks and the Japanese are in contention for the final Pool A berth.

Russia, which has four players back from the team that took silver at the 2000 Sydney Games, has won eight medals (including six by the old Soviet Union) since the sport debuted at the 1964
Games. That's the most by a women's team from any country.