LONDON -- Team USA may not end up winning the medal count over China, but for any American watching the U.S. women's volleyball team take on its country's greatest international rival on Wednesday night, the finish had to provide an unforgettable moment of satisfaction.
The Chinese had fought off five match points, and the score of the third set stood 29-29. On the next point, Team USA star outside hitter Destinee Hooker rose to the net, swung her right hand at the ball and sent a rocket headed straight for Chinese captain Quiyue Wei. The ball found only Wei's face, Team USA took another 1-point lead, and it wouldn't be the least bit shocking if Wei looks in the mirror and sees a Marcia Brady-sized swollen nose glaring back at her.
Hooker's intimidating spike set the tone for another match point, and this time, the Americans finished the job with a winner by Penn State graduate Megan Hodge to clinch a 26-24, 25-16, 31-29 victory.
Hodge was one of the stars who owned the stage of a supercharged Earl's Court, which was packed with Chinese and American fans who attempted to drown each other out throughout the match with chants of "CHINA!" and "U-S-A!" The American contingent got to see their team, which entered the London Games with a No. 1 world ranking, go 3-0 in the Pool B preliminary round. China fell to 2-1.
Team USA trailed 23-21 in the third set when Hodge, a native of Durham, N.C., took over. She hit winning spikes on back-to-back points to tie the score. Standing behind the court on the American bench, Hodge's former Penn State teammate, Christa Harmotto, wasn't the least bit surprised.
The two helped the Nittany Lions to national championships in 2007 and '08, and Hodge would win another in '09 after Harmotto had graduated.
"I'm super proud of her," said Harmotto, a native of Hopewell Township who attended Hopewell High. "I know what Megan can do playing with her three years at Penn State. She's got some things that teams cannot defend. It was great to see her out there and see her happy."
It was actually Harmotto who got the start at middle blocker, where she plays as the first line of defense, but she didn't see much action in the second and third sets. Harmotto was happy to play cheerleader.
"Christa brings so much," Hodge said. "She is first and foremost a great person. She just goes out there and works hard. She brings positive, positive energy, which is something that we need."
Harmotto has spent the last week soaking up the Olympic experience. The highlight so far was Friday night's opening ceremony.
"The moments before walking through that tunnel to make our lap around the track, the whole USA crew is in the same uniform and chanting U-S-A," Harmotto said. "To walk out of that tunnel as one team is quite special. That's definitely something I'll take away."
Harmotto and Hodge have both been shocked by the excitement level of the crowds at Earl's Court.
"It's almost strange for us," Harmotto said. "We're usually playing outside the U.S., and you don't hear the U-S-A chants. It's great to have the support, especially in games like that when it's 28-28 in the third."
Hodge fed off the adrenaline she got from the fans and had a night to remember. She's been a bench player so far, but don't be surprised if she continues her role as finisher as these Olympics play out.
"We just feel very comfortable with her out there taking those big swings with the set on the line and the match on the line," Team USA coach Hugh McCutcheon said. "Really, that's what we've come to expect from her."
J. Brady McCollough: email@example.com and on Twitter @BradyMcCollough. First Published August 1, 2012 10:30 PM