In women’s water polo, as compared to men’s there are only 8 entries, and all 8 teams advance to the knockout stages. These preliminary pools are used simply as seeding for the quarterfinals.
Pool A: USA 14-Hungary 13
The Americans topped a barn-burner of a matchup with the Hungarians by final tally of 14-13 in the Olympic water polo arena.
The Hungarian women don’t have quite the legacy of their male counterparts, but they did make it to the bronze-medal match at the 2008 Olympics. The Americans come in as slight favorites to win gold on the strength of their all-world goalie Betsy Armstrong and one of the most veteran rosters in the tournament.
But it was the Americans’ offense that paid off in their first match. In the last two years, the Americans’ offense has been very up-and-down, but it seems as though this year, they have brought serious firepower. That’s thanks to by far the youngest member of their team, and the lone teenager on the roster, 19-year old Maggie Steffens. The young Stanford Cardinal Center Back was put on the roster to defend at two-meters, but she exploded in the first half of this game.
Steffens scored the Americans’ first three goals, for a total of 6 in the first half and 7 overall, and set the water polo world abuzz on Monday.
As the score indicated, this was an extremely tight matchup throughout. Both teams had 12 assists and 5 steal, both teams shot about 45% from the field, and both teams were very effective in man-up situations. The Hungarians were better out of set, but that was countered by the Americans getting two extra goals off of power plays and a huge save on a penalty by Armstrong (a penalty shot given up on a Steffens foul).
In the 4th-quarter, it was Courtney Matthews who took over, scoring all three of the Americans’ fourth-quarter goals. The Hungarians had an answer every time, but at the end of the match committed an exclusion foul with 26 seconds left. The Americans were then able to run out the clock and secure the victory.
Pool A: Spain 11-China 6
The Spanish team came into this opening match of the women’s Olympic water polo tournament as big underdogs to Asian Champions China. The Spanish team is in their first ever Olympic Games, and has an extremely young roster: 9 of their 13 players are 22 or younger; including a trio of teenagers. But their teenagers played extremely well, as Anna Espar, one of the youngest members of the team having turned 19 in January, led all scorers with a hat trick.
Their inexperience showed at times, but in general they dominated the action en route to a 5-goal win.
Both teams had quality interior play, but overall Spain dominated from the forward position. They got 5 shots out of the set, including 2 goals, and drew each of their 6 exclusion fouls on the inside.
Their inexperience showed on the opposite end, though, as many times they were out of position, resulting in a huge 12 exclusions. China, however, was only able to convert on 3 of those 12, for a dismal 25% ratio. Their man-up opportunities demonstrated a symptom that plagued the Chinese throughout the match: they seemed content to rotate the ball around the perimeter without any real movement or purpose toward goal. They instead relied too heavily on their set, but even when that set was effective they fell back into the same pattern and couldn’t take advantage.
Because of their lack of movement, China was forced into 10 foul-shots from outside 5-meters. They didn’t score on a single one of them. Since FINA instituted the 5-meter rule that allows for an immediate shot on a foul outside of the 5-meter line, shooting a low percentage on those shots has been a kiss-of-death in international water polo.
China also demonstrated very poor goal-keeping, as keeper Jun Yang was routinely out of position and seemed to be batting, and missing, at balls that were well within her reach. Further, Spain was able to score in the final :15 seconds in each of the first three quarters. That includes twice with only 2 seconds on the clock, which is a huge error when a goalie should be tee’d up on the shooter.
Huanhuan Ma led China with a hat-trick of her own, scoring three goals on special teams. That includes once on the game’s lone penalty, and twice on man-up situations.
The road doesn’t get any easier for China in pool play. They have yet two face the United States and Hungary, two semi-finalists from 2008. That means that they have a likely date with 2008 bronze medalists Australia in the quarterfinals, who looked very good in their match against Italy today.
Pool B: Australia 10-Italy 8
In a matchup between the 2000 and 2004 Olympic medalists, as well as the silver and bronze medalists from last year’s FINA Super League Final, the Australian and Italian women matched up in a game that wasn’t close until the final quarter.
The Australians largely shut down Italy’s superstar, and one of the biggest scorers in the world, Tania D’Mario. D’Mario shot just 1-for-6 in the first half, with the lone goal coming on an extra-man opportunity. But in the 4th-quarter, the 33-year old veteran settled into a groove.
Meanwhile, the Australian defense stifled any semblance of an Italian attack, with 12 steals in those first three quarters.
But then in the 4th, D’Mario found her groove. First with a penalty, and then with a pair of assists as the Italians had a run at the end with four goals in the last period: as many as they had in the three before.
Australia’s veteran, Kate Gynther, scored a big goal though with 5:09 left in the match, her third, to seal the victory up. That final goal came on a counterattack, with Australia not surprisingly one of the fastest teams in the tournament. They were a perfect 4-for-4 on sprints (the equivalent of a jump ball), and scored three goals on counterattacks: a big number in typically half-court-style international water polo.
Pool B: Great Britain 7-Russia 6
The British women are competing in their first ever Olympics; but by all rights they wouldn’t have qualified were they not the host nation. They went 0-3 in the draw round in the 2012 European Championships, including a 15-10 loss to these Russians.
They almost pulled off a huge upset, but came up just short by score of 7-6. The low-scoring affair favored the Brits, who got three goals from Angie Winstanley-Smith. The patient hometown squad dominated the time of possession and showed great patience, but ultimately were sunk by 21 offensive fouls.
For Russia, the score was balanced, though Olga Beliaeve and Ekaterina Prokofyeva scoring two goals apiece.