SYDNEY -- It started out as a challenge, but by the end of the day USA-USA was a chant again.
Americans Dain Blanton and Eric Fonoimoana beat another U.S. team in the Olympic beach volleyball quarterfinals early Sunday before winning another match in the afternoon to carry the U.S. flag into the gold-medal game at Bondi Beach. The FIVB Tour teammates breezed past Kevin Wong and Robert Heidger, 15-3, in the morning and returned to the court five hours later to outlast Miguel Maia and Joao Brenha, of Portugal, 15-12, in the semifinals.
Blanton and Fonoimoana are guaranteed at least a silver medal in the Sydney Games and will play Brazil's Jose Melo and Ricardo Santos for the gold Tuesday afternoon.
"Playing in the gold-medal game is something I always dreamed about,'' said Fonoimoana, a 31-year-old Californian. "Now that it's here, it's a dream come true. We wanted to represent our country and we wanted to get on the medal stand, so we've accomplished half our goal
"Now we're going to go out and play to win the gold.''
They almost went out with a different result Sunday.
Tied 10-10 after an hour of play, the Americans gained the serve and scored to go up 11-10. But, as Fonoimoana prepared for his next serve, referee Peter Hreszczyk issued a red card for delaying the game and took a point away from the U.S. side.
"He said I took a little too long and the referee didn't like it,'' said Fonoimoana, who had words with Hreszczyk several times throughout the match and again when he was leaving the court.
The penalty, however, might have been the pivotal moment in the game for the American team.
After quickly winning a side out, the U.S. got the ball back and Blanton served consecutive aces to go ahead 12-10. Fonoimoana won a point on a block and Blanton served another ace to win the match.
"That woke us up an fired us up,'' Blanton said of the red card both American players viewed as unfair. "We're out there playing for every point, and to have a point taken away from us is emotional. We were at a point where we had to take control of the match or it was going to spin out of control.
"We had to do what we did to take control. There's no decisions to be made when you do that. An ace is an ace, a block is a block. It was intense out there to say the least.''
The match was as tight throughout as Blanton and Fonoimoan's fists were when the red card was issued.
The U.S. team attempted only three more serves that Maia and Brehna, who had three more attack attempts than the Americans. Both teams had 22 digs.
"I think that was defnitely our hardest match,'' said Blanton, a 29-year old from Los Angeles. "It was a battle. It's a lot of fun when you've got four guys out there going at it.
"They took us to our limit.''
Melo and Santos could take the Americans even farther.
The Brazilians are expected to be as tough as the U.S. team's semifinal opponents, perhaps even tougher. But Blanton and Fonoimoana say they have never been better prepared for such a big match.
They have played together for three years on the FIVB Tour, but despite atetmpting to qualify for Sydney all season, they did not earn a spot in the field until mid-August. Since then, their play has become more consistent, and in the Olympic tournament, they have won all four of their matches, while allowing more than seven points only twice. Sunday's semifinal was their only match that lasted more than an hour.
"We're playing our best ball, but at the same time, we're taking one game at a time,'' said Fonoimoana. "We know the big picture and everything involved, but we're just concentrating on one game. We know their game, now it's just a matter of execution.''
"If we can keep it as a simple match and play our hardest,'' added Blanton, "Then good things will happen.''
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