London • Bump, set, spike, exhale.
Logan Tom hammered home the game-winner and watched it ricochet off a South Korean player’s fist and land safely out of bounds. After struggling to separate from South Korea through three sets on Thursday, and trailing for much of two of them, the No. 1-ranked U.S. showed its coolness and composure, winning 25-20, 25-22, 25-22 to advance to the gold-medal match of the London Olympics.
For the 31-year-old Tom, who played at Highland High School and is competing in her fourth Olympics, the semifinal victory was the perfect tune-up for the championship match on Saturday against Brazil. It will be a rematch of the 2008 gold-medal game, which Brazil won.
“I get nervous when I don’t have a match like that,” said Tom, who scored eight points. “You need that experience, that kind of challenge, because you really don’t want it in an actual final.”
There will be pressure enough in the final. The U.S. women, coached by former BYU player and assistant coach Hugh McCutcheon, are chasing their first gold medal since volleyball became an Olympic sport in 1964.
At Earls Court in central London, the U.S. was tested early by South Korea. The Koreans were a surprise to advance so deep in the knockout round. Ranked No. 15 in the world, they upset No. 4 Italy in the quarterfinals on Tuesday.
The U.S. did not break away in the first set until after a 16-16 tie and trailed 21-20 in the second. In the third game, it was tied as late as 21-21.
“We didn’t play our best match,” captain Lindsey Berg said. “Not the best of the tournament, and hopefully we are saving that for the gold-medal match. We played great after 20 points, and that’s what makes a winning team win.”
Berg was instrumental to the U.S. success. She returned after missing the team’s quarterfinal victory over the Dominican Republic with a strained Achilles and said she felt “amazing.”
While Berg’s return provided a lift for the Americans, the most impressive force continues to be former University of Texas star Destinee Hooker. The 6-foot-4 opposite attacker scored 24 points against South Korea, drawing praise from her teammates and coach.
“She’s very special athletically, obviously, that’s part of it,” McCutcheon said. “But also she’s learned a lot about volleyball. She was pretty raw when she came into our gym.”
After the match, Hooker said that when she was 13, the AAU coach told her she was too tall to play volleyball, that she couldn’t get low enough. So she quit, and focused on basketball and track.
“Sounds like Michael Jordan getting cut as a sophomore, right?” McCutcheon said.
But Hooker started playing volleyball again in high school and Saturday she will be the young star of a team playing for a gold medal, with several teammates — such as Tom and Berg — who after several Olympics are still looking for their first gold.
That is what makes this year’s team special, McCutcheon said.
“It’s that combination,” he said, “that balance of veteran leadership and experience, and the youth and the exuberance that comes with that.”
He just hopes those are the ingredients of a gold medal.
Storylines U.S. moves to final
R Led by 24 points from Destinee Hooker, the U.S. women’s volleyball team advances to the championship match on Saturday.
• The U.S. has never won a gold medal in volleyball. It is the defending silver medalist in the sport.
• The U.S. trailed throughout much of two of its three sets against South Korea, which was a surprise to advance so deep in the tournament.