RIO DE JANEIRO — Kayla Banwarth had been her usual self, darting and diving and digging, in the United States’ Olympic semifinal volleyball matchup Thursday afternoon.
Those efforts didn’t get the typical result, however, which is why Banwarth’s normal post-match sweat and scrapes were accompanied by tears at Maracanazinho.
The U.S. didn’t have its entire complement of players after losing veteran middle blocker Foluke Akinradewo to a leg injury, and was done in by a tall, inspired, defensive-minded Serbian team 20-25, 25-17, 25-21, 16-25, 15-13.
Akinradewo, a veteran of the U.S. silver medal team from 2012, didn’t play in the final three sets.
Thus ended the United States’ quest for its first gold in women’s indoor volleyball in a year when its prospects seemed particularly bright after the U.S had won its first world title in 2014.
“That was the best match Serbia’s ever played, so props to them,” said Banwarth, the 5-foot-10 libero out of Dubuque, and Wahlert High who then starred at Nebraska.
“They came at us hard, and we had to push back and forth a couple times,” she added, fighting tears. “They just had a little bit more at the end.”
After falling behind two sets to one, the U.S. seemed to have gained the momentum after winning the fourth decisively. It led the fifth 11-8 but couldn’t put away the Serbs, who had particularly success throughout the match with their blocks at the net.
“We fought really hard and obviously it hurts that we couldn’t push a little bit more at the end there. I think we had good momentum,” Banwarth said. “We started out the fifth really well there and just weren’t able to finish.”
Banwarth’s nine digs were a match high.
“She was solid,” coach Karch Kiraly said of Banwarth. “Her first job is to be great in serve receive and she continues to do that in this tournament.”
Earlier, Kiraly had praised his team and Serbia.
“We’re incredibly proud of the way we battled through some real adversity today,” Kiraly said, referring to the injury and the frequent lineup adjustments he had to make to counter the Serbs. “We put ourselves in a position where we could make that win possible and Serbia made some great plays down the stretch and they earned a victory for which they should be very proud.”
Serbia’s four-set loss to the U.S. in group play was one of its two, but the Serbs swept Russia in the quarterfinals to set up the rematch and clinched their first Olympic women’s volleyball medal.
“The more you play a team, the more you know about them,” Banwarth said. “I’m sure they wanted their revenge on us, so I’m sure they scouted us really well and they were ready to go.’’
The U.S. now set sights on winning bronze on Saturday against the loser of Thursday’s late semifinal, between China and the Netherlands.
“It’s the journey that matters,” Banwarth said, “not the outcome.’’
Kevin Tresolini writes for The News Journal (Wilmington, Del.).