BEIJING Whether it be gold or silver, a medal is in the bag.
That much became guaranteed for the United States women's volleyball team Thursday afternoon when the U.S. beat no, swept , better yet, make that crushed Cuba in the minimum three sets in the Beijing Olympics semifinals.
The score: 25-20, 25-16, 25-17 in the Americans' easiest triumph of these Games, their first three-set sweep in Beijing. And it came against a Cuban squad that not only entered the semis with an unblemished record but had hardly been tested in six previous matches.
And that included a three-set sweep of this same U.S. team just last week in preliminary-pool play, one of four 3-0 match victories posted by Cuba in Beijing.
My, how the tables have been turned and the times have changed.
Not just from last week to this week for the U.S. team but for the Americans' medal successes in past Olympics.
The United States hasn't medaled in women's volleyball since a bronze at the '92 Barcelona Games and hasn't played in a gold-medal match since 1984.
That all changes when the U.S. faces Brazil in Saturday's tournament finale.
A loss, and the U.S. still earns the silver; a win, and the American women make history by becoming the first U.S. women's volleyball team to claim Olympic gold.
"Silver's good," said setter Robyn Ah Mow-Santos, "but why not get the gold."
The U.S. team's charge into the finals came against a listless, lethargic Cuban team that struggled in serving and receiving, making countless errors on both accounts and handing the U.S. plenty of freebie points.
Meanwhile, the Americans took a page from their normally upbeat, high-energy Latin opponents. Call it emotion in motion.
"We put our emotions out there," said outside hitter Logan Tom. "You can really see what they call 'the American fighting spirit.'"
And either Cuba didn't put up much of a fight or the U.S. completely dominated its opponent.
A little bit of both, actually.
In the opening set, the U.S. had a three-point lead at 15-12 and extended it once it reached the 20s for the eventual 25-20 score.
In the second set, the U.S. had its three-point lead early and steadily increased it 12-6, 20-13 and 23-14 until the final 25-16 margin.
And in the third and final set, the United States jumped out just as early as in the second and survived a couple of Cuba's mini-runs to post the 25-17 match-clinching score.
Tayyiba Haneef-Park led the U.S. with nine kills and three aces for a match-best 12 points, while Tom trailed just behind at 11 with seven kills, three blocks and an ace.
"We don't have any superstars on this team," said Tom of the balanced U.S. attack. "And that's what I love about our team."
Kimberly Glass said team unity is the difference between the current U.S. squad and its predecessors.
"When we first started playing, we played individually. It was ugly and we made lots of errors," Glass said. "The game is bigger than you. We are here as one team every time I talk about it, I get chills."
With the match won, the U.S. players and coaches celebrated like they had just won the gold medal which still remains their task at hand. But given their very limited medal history, they can't be blamed.
The extended exuberance included normally stoic and reserved U.S. head coach Lang Ping, who as a player led China to the 1984 gold medal against the United States and then coached China to the '96 silver."She was squealing like a little girl," laughed Tom. "It was a high, squeaky voice I expected to see a little girl in pigtails and a school dress."