RIO DE JANEIRO — Ashleigh Johnson and KK Clark joined a couple of Brazilian dancers for a samba lesson. Maggie Steffens grabbed an American flag for the party on the pool deck. One by one, the players draped their gold medals around the neck of grieving coach Adam Krikorian.
The U.S. saved its best for last, and Italy never stood a chance.
Johnson made nine saves, Kiley Neushul scored three goals on four shots and the United States routed Italy 12-5 on Friday for its second straight Olympic gold medal in women's water polo.
"To play as well as we did today in that moment and that atmosphere in a gold-medal game when you've been thinking about this for the last four years is just, it's a dream come true," Krikorian said.
Makenzie Fischer and Rachel Fattal each had two goals for the Americans, who stretched their win streak to 22 games with their sixth victory in Rio de Janeiro by a combined score of 73-32.
"I think we really did change the game," said Johnson, who was voted the top goaltender of the tournament. "We played completely different than the game's ever been played before. Really fast, intelligent, it's really fun to watch and it's great to play."
Russia took home the bronze, beating Hungary 19-18 on penalty shots. It's the first women's water polo medal for Russia since 2000.
Neushul and Steffens each gave Krikorian a big hug as they left in the final minute, and Neushul patted him on the head. When the final seconds ticked off, Krikorian walked over to congratulate Italy coach Fabio Conti, and then was tackled into the pool by a couple of his jubilant players.
In another Olympics dominated by U.S. women, Steffens — the MVP and probably the best player in the world — and her teammates shined as brightly as any of them. The water polo tournament shifted to the Olympic Aquatics Stadium following the swimming competition, and the array of Pac-12 stars that dominate the U.S. roster picked up right where Katie Ledecky and company left off, wearing down their opponents with superior speed, athleticism and strength.
The U.S. women were the overwhelming favorites all along — and they played like it. The 12 goals and seven-goal margin were records for the Olympic final.
"USA is, in this moment, a team of another universe," Conti said.
The Americans pounded Brazil 13-3 before outslugging Hungary 14-10 in the semifinals. They held the lead after 23 of their 24 quarters and trailed for a total of only 44 seconds — in the first quarter against Hungary on Wednesday.
"It's one of the best teams I've ever been a part of, and I've been a part of some really amazing teams," Neushul said. "The team is so versatile, so many different threats. We have speed. We have size. We have athleticism, and I think this team was one of the first teams to display all those different styles in one team."
By the time Krikorian and the U.S. staff hit the pool for a celebratory swim, the Americans possessed each of the major crowns in women's water polo, adding a second Olympic gold to their world championship, World Cup and World League Super Final titles.
The scene after the final was the top of an emotional roller coaster for Krikorian, who rushed home before the United States' first game to be with his family after the sudden death of his brother Blake, a former water polo player at UCLA and beloved Silicon Valley entrepreneur.
Before departing for California, Krikorian met with his players and urged them to make the most of their Olympic experience. He returned in time for an opening 11-4 victory over Spain, and then nearly broke down in tears while talking about his brother after the win.
Blake's 49th birthday would have been Thursday, and Krikorian's wife, Anicia Mendez, surprised him in Rio to be there with him for the sad day and then the final.
"It's not about me and it's about the team, and that has actually helped me and that's made it actually fairly easy," he said, "and that doesn't take away from the love I have for my family or my brother. It's more of a sign of respect and love that I think we all have for each other."
Krikorian brushed away any talk of winning it all for him and his family, insisting Blake himself would think it was a ludicrous notion, but his players pledged their support for their mourning coach. And they delivered with their play — all the way to the gold medal.
"That's what we're about," Steffens said, "is going out there, having fun and playing the best water polo we can."
Jay Cohen can be reached at http://www.twitter.com/jcohenap