Erickson, Holloway and Matthews steer USA’s win over China to retain gold medal

USA succeeded in their campaign to retain their Paralympic women’s sitting volleyball title, following their 3-1 (25-12, 25-20, 22-25, 25-19) win over long-time rivals China in the gold medal match of the Tokyo 2020 Paralympic Games at Makuhari Messe Hall on Sunday.

China dominated the first three Paralympic Games women’s sitting volleyball events since it was first included in the sports programme at Athens 2004, then the United States ended the reign of the Asian powerhouse squad at Rio 2016.

USA, prior to winning that gold in Rio de Janeiro, have collected bronze at Athens 2004 and two silver medals at Beijing 2008 and London 2012.

In Tokyo, these two squads had an earlier meeting at the preliminary round, where China recorded a straight-sets win.

Heather Erickson, Katie Holloway and Monique Matthews piled up big numbers to power the USA four-set victory. Erickson topped all scorers with 21 markers, then Holloway and Matthews made 20 and 19 points, respectively.

The USA scoring trio played a huge part on defence as they combined for 12 of the team’s 18-point total.

“It’s a total and complete utopia of emotions and happiness. I am proud of my team and of the people that had to step up. I am just so happy for everybody. It’s really a big utopia of happiness and a big stress relief at the end of the day,” USA’s top scorer Heather Erickson said.

“This set of games were different from Rio because I felt that there were a lot of emotions (involved). When adversity is thrown at you at these Games especially, certain teams fall apart or come together. We really had to decide to come together as a team. We really refocused and we did not take the loss negatively, and instead took it as a learning experience.”

On the Chinese side, captain Yu Yixiao made a late surge and collected 20 points off 18 spikes, and a point each on her serve and block, while Wang Yanan and Tang Xuemei were limited to score only 12 and 10 points.

China had a shaky start as they felt the pressure from the USA on the get-go. USA led 8-6 in the first technical timeout, then increased the lead with five more points off pressure-filled swings of Holloway that drilled through the Chinese block. China seemed to have been rattled by their aggressive opponents and began to commit more errors in the next few plays.

China captain Xu Yixiao, who was prolific game in their preliminary round encounter, was tentative on offence as she was marked by the USA blockers several times. USA boosted their game and were ahead by 10 points, prompting the Chinese head coach to call a timeout at 19-9. However, the succeeding points scored still went in USA’s favour as they closed the set at 25-12.

China tried to regroup in the second set, but USA outplayed them by setting up an impenetrable wall against the Chinese attackers and scoring on smartly placed attacks that mostly subsidised by Erickson. USA had an 11-5 edge out of the rallies and held that advantage until the second technical timeout 16-10.

China had some spurt of energy to score several points in a row, causing USA to commit some turnovers. USA were down with a four-point lead at 19-15, but China started to toughen up on defence and matched their opponents’ intensity on offence to deadlock at 19-all. Jillian Williams managed to stop the Chinese run with a hit and a block that put USA up again 21-19. USA had a 3-1 run in the next few plays, followed by a spike by Monique Matthews that sealed the second set win at 25-20.

USA played with the same momentum, but China managed to get ahead for the first time 8-6 as they implemented tougher defence. USA got back on track as Erickson helped weaken the Chinese block with her strong swings from the attack line.

Then a point-by-point battle broke out in the succeeding plays and lasted until the final stretch of the set. Two consecutive hits by Xu gave China the advantage 22-20, then Holloway responded with a middle hit. China continued to score and the two attacks from USA that went out-of-bounds extended the match for China 25-22.

The fourth set was a see-saw battle, as both squads fought hard and not giving a significant edge over the other. USA managed to have a two-point cushion at the first technical timeout and a Williams’ serve increased it to three at 10-7. China tried to match that intensity and levelled the score at 13-all.

USA somehow put a stop to that surge and led again by two points at the second technical timeout. USA maintained the lead as China struggled with some turnovers that caused them to lose focus in the set. As USA led 22-17, Holloway and Erickson’s strong swings put the team at gold medal point, then an ace by Emma Schieck sent the entire team into a celebration as they earned their second Paralympic gold at 25-19.

“I think USA did not show their best game when we played them in pool play. Today they showed what they are capable of and they showed their best on the court,” China coach Xu Huimin said.

“The Chinese women’s team always show great mood and spirit, so in volleyball, we call it women’s volleyball spirit. That spirit supports the players to overcome any difficulty they experience on the court and I think we were motivated in the third set with that great spirit.”

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