By Steve Keating
TOKYO (Reuters) - The United States will play for a third consecutive women's water polo Olympic gold medal after edging a determined Russian Olympic Committee (ROC) team 15-11 on Thursday to set up a showdown with European champions Spain.
Spain, silver medallists behind the U.S. at London 2012, moved into the final with a clinical 8-6 win over Hungary, who had earlier provided the shocker of Games in the water polo pool when they upset the top-ranked Americans in the preliminaries.
Hungary will play the ROC in the bronze-medal match.
After demolishing the ROC 18-5 in group play, the U.S. were expected to waltz into Saturday's final but the Russians gave the reigning champions a fright before fading at the end.
Deadlocked at 11-11 late in the final quarter, the U.S. showed their gold-medal pedigree down the closing stretch by scoring four unanswered goals, including the final two from Madeline Musselman.
"We're not done yet, obviously a great win and we'll probably celebrate for one meal and that's about it and it's on to the next game," said Musselman, who led the U.S. attack with five goals. "That's just a testament to what this team wants to do.
"We've had a lot of success but this team hasn't done anything yet, we haven't won a medal yet; I think we are looking for the opportunity of fighting for one."
The U.S. will be counting on Musselman to maintain her scoring touch against a Spanish team that plays tough, physical defence.
"When you're a shooter, you got to shoot," said U.S. coach Adam Krikorian. "That's your job.
"When the opportunity exists, you can't hesitate, she (Musselman) didn't hesitate tonight.
"No matter how many shots you missed before, you got to go with the same courage, the same aggressiveness and she did that."
Hungary had toppled the mighty Americans 10-9 in group play to hand the U.S. their first Olympic defeat since the 2008 Beijing Games.
Since 2014, the U.S. have been the sport's dominant force, winning all 13 major international tournaments in which they have competed, including the 2015, 2017 and 2019 world championships.
The U.S. are also the only team to finish on the podium at every Olympic Games since women's water polo was introduced to the programme in 2000, and have played in the final five times.
(Reporting by Steve Keating in Tokyo, Editing by Ed Osmond and Clare Fallon)