USA volleyball takes down the top team in the world
Desperation is a powerful emotion.
With their backs against the wall, the Americans absolutely had to have at least one point on Day 3 of preliminaries Thursday night.
The only problem? They were going up against the best team in the world - a Brazilian squad playing in front of their home crowd in a packed arena.
But none of that mattered.
After sloppy and inconsistent performances on the first two days of prelims, a different U.S. team showed up to the Maracanazinho arena Thursday and took down Brazil in four sets (25-20, 25-23, 20-25, 25-20).
"We play our best volleyball when our backs are against the wall," U.S. captain David Lee said. "We proved it again tonight.
"This was probably the hardest we've fought, I think our team has ever fought. That's some of the best defense I've ever seen."
Team USA - ranked fifth in the world - stormed out of the gate with wins in the first two sets, getting major contributions from setter Micah Christenson (nine points, four aces), star Matt Anderson (24 points on 23 spikes) and outside hitter Aaron Russell (19 points).
The U.S. struggled with service faults in the first two matches in Rio, handing their opposition too many points. But Thursday night, serving was a strong point for Christenson and Co., picking up clutch aces and putting Brazil on its heels from the outset.
"When you're playing against an entire crowd that's against you, 95 percent of the crowd's against you, if you can get them to be quiet, it's a hell of a feeling," Anderson said.
In the first set, the Americans capitalized on a pair of challenges that led to their 19th and 20th points and took the wind out of Brazil's sails a bit.
Brazil's woes carried over as the first serve of the second set wound up into the net, staking USA to an early lead. Lee, playing in his third Olympics, gave his team a boost with a spike and then a big-time block to build a 4-1 lead.
The two teams traded points for most of the second set before another Christenson ace gave USA set point to pull away.
Brazil finally bounced back in the third set and the U.S. squad helped early by handing a point to the world's top team with a simple miscommunication issue. Brazil worked a 24-19 lead before an intense rally and eventual U.S. point looked like a comeback could be in the cards.
But the hosts immediately halted the momentum and put the third set away.
In the fourth set, Christenson was the spark once again with more solid serving and some craftiness to bury points on Brazil's side and set up his teammates for success.
The U.S. squad was in control for the entire fourth set and finally sent home the 2012 silver medalists after almost two hours of volleyball.
"It's a huge lesson in knowing that we can come back, even against one of the best teams - if not the best team - in this tournament," Anderson said.
With three points from the match, USA pulls even with Canada for the fourth spot in Pool A - the final quarterfinals slot - with two matches left to play.
Brazil won six of eight sets to begin the Olympics, but picked up zero points Thrusday and remains tied with France for the second spot with six points after three matches.
U.S. plays against France next at 4:05 p.m. Saturday on Day 4 of the prelims. France just swept Canada and Mexico in back-to-back matches, but ranks 11th overall in the world entering Rio.
Quotes from the Associated Press.