- Associated Press - Thursday, August 9, 2012

LONDON — The United States won its first gold medal in women’s water polo, getting five goals from Maggie Steffens and a sterling performance from goalkeeper Betsey Armstrong en route to an 8-5 win over Spain on Thursday.

The Americans overpowered a young Spanish team at both ends of the pool to lead 5-2 by halftime, and they never looked back.

“I am speechless. It still hasn’t sunk in,” U.S. captain Brenda Villa said. “I can’t describe it. It’s the end of a journey, and I got my fairy tale ending.”

The U.S. has long been a power in women’s water polo, but the Americans had never translated their success at other major competitions to the Olympics, taking bronze in 2004 and silver in 2000 and 2008.

Villa and Heather Petri played on all three of those Olympic teams. They came back this year, along with five other veterans from 2008, and were joined by a talented batch of new players. Chief among them was the 19-year-old Steffens, who led all scorers in London with 21 goals.

Her five-goal effort in the final came as a bookend to her stunning seven-goal Olympic debut to open the games.

Steffens was unstoppable against Spain, scoring with long-distance shots, outmuscling Spanish defenders in front of goal to score from close range and even slotting home a penalty shot.

For Steffens, it was particularly sweet this year to give Villa and Petri a win to end their careers.

“I’ve looked up to Brenda and Peti, and I was at the 2008 games and I felt that passion of the loss,” she said. “I wanted this for Brenda and Peti — to be able to retire and go out with the happiness of having gold, and for the ‘08 girls, to fill that void, to get the gold medal.”

Basketball: Australia challenges, but U.S. women prevail in semis

Facing its first challenge of the Olympics, the U.S. women’s basketball team turned up its defensive pressure and turned away Australia.

Trailing early in the second half, U.S. coach Geno Auriemma turned to his Olympic rookies and the group — led by Tina Charles and Lindsay Whalen — pressured the Australians into turnovers and bad shots, sparking a pivotal scoring run in the third quarter to help the U.S. beat Australia 86-73 on Thursday.

The Americans, playing for a fifth straight gold medal, will meet France in the final.

The Americans had cruised through their first six games, winning by an average of 38 points before facing the No. 2 team in the world in the semifinals — a round earlier than they had met at the past three Olympics.

Volleyball: U.S. women beat South Korea, one win from first gold

Coach Hugh McCutcheon made a special point of seeking out captain Lindsey Berg for a quick hug after the U.S. women’s volleyball team advanced to the gold medal match at the London Olympics.

The Americans got an emotional boost from Berg, who returned for a 25-20, 25-22, 25-22 semifinal victory over South Korea on Thursday after missing the last match with a strained left Achilles tendon.

“It’s game time and I feel great, and I don’t care how I feel after Saturday,” Berg said of the final, when the U.S. will face Brazil for gold.

The U.S. women made it to the final at the 2008 Beijing Games but settled for the silver medal, falling 3-1 to Brazil. The team has won silver twice and bronze once since volleyball joined the Olympics in 1964. But the gold has eluded them.

Swimming: Anderson just misses out on gold in Hyde Park marathon

Eva Risztov of Hungary led most of the way in a grueling Olympic open water marathon at Hyde Park on Thursday, holding off the desperate pursuit of American Haley Anderson.

Risztov reached up with her right hand to touch the timing pad in 1 hour, 57 minutes, 38.2 seconds. She climbed out of the water, smiling and looking fresh as can be, and even flexed for the big crowd.

Anderson was right on Risztov’s left shoulder coming to the line in the 10-kilometer race but couldn’t overtake her. The American stuck up her left hand to nick the pad four-tenths of a second behind the winner, also slapping it with her right hand just to make sure.

“Of course, I’m disappointed that I missed out on gold,” said Anderson, whose sister, Alyssa, won a relay gold in the pool. “But I gave it everything I had. I’m happy with the result.”

Diving: Teammates Viola, Bell fail to advance in 10m platform

No sweet music for Brittany Viola. The daughter of former major league baseball pitcher Frank Viola missed out on the 10-meter platform diving final at the London Olympics.

Viola finished 15th in the semifinal Thursday with 300.50 points. Her teammate, Katie Bell, also failed to advance after finishing 16th with 296.80.

Viola opened the five-dive round by scoring 67.50 points on her front 3 1/2 somersaults pike, but had misses in later rounds.

“My mind felt right, my body felt right. It just didn’t come together,” she said. “Still, to be here was just incredible. I’m going to celebrate this journey. I never thought I’d be here.”