Leaning over, hands on her knees and cheering at every chance, injured U.S. star Foluke Akinradewo could only watch. The top-ranked Americans had fought back to force a fifth set against Serbia before falling short — short of the gold-medal goal that had driven her and others back to the national team for one more Olympic cycle.
Serbia's players cried in triumph after the biggest win in their program's history. They reached the Rio de Janeiro championship, guaranteeing the country's first women's volleyball medal after a 20-25, 25-17, 25-21, 16-25, 15-13 victory.
"Right now, this loss is deeply disappointing. It cuts deep. It's very painful, and that's OK," U.S. coach Karch Kiraly said. "When you care that much, it's going to. We're going to process that some, we get some time to grieve. We signed up to do difficult things with USA and we're going to come back harder the next 48 hours to fight for the bronze medal."
Akinradewo's teammates took over after she was sidelined by an apparent left knee injury late in the opening set after beginning the match brilliantly. She tried to give it a go, but the leg didn't let her. Akinradewo will undergo tests to determine whether she might play Saturday.
"It was tough when Foluke went down. I think we were a little distracted there for a second because we care so much for her," captain Christa Dietzen said, briefly becoming emotional. "Obviously we wanted to turn this around, for her, for everybody that's part of this program. We have a chance in the next 48 hours to do so."
Akinradewo, a Stanford graduate, stood next to Kiraly during timeouts, shaking her head and yelling, "Come on!"
Kiraly switched his lineup in her absence, then switched it again. Serbia kept pounding, digging out balls, leaping for blocks and serving with precision.
The Americans led 12-10 in the fifth set when Karsta Lowe served into the net, then Milena Rasic answered with an ace and U.S. middle blocker Rachael Adams also netted her serve.
"It's amazing. There's no words to describe really this feeling," Serbia's Tijana Malesevic said. "I think we need more time to be aware of what we did, but we gave our heart. We gave everything what we could, what we know, like everything — like each player, staff, coaches. We made it. This is history. We wrote history for Serbia, for volleyball federation, for the world."
Lowe came through with her powerful left arm, Dietzen and Adams blocked masterfully as Kayla Banwarth provided her signature reliable passing, but the Americans (7-1) couldn't close it out with their star middle blocker down.
The Americans are knocked out of title contention, and two-time defending Olympic champion Brazil was ousted in a stunning five-setter by China in the quarterfinals. That means Serbia will face a young Chinese squad led by former U.S. coach Jenny Lang Ping or a Netherlands team that is back in the Olympics for the first time in 20 years.
Both teams also advanced out of the preliminary pool with the U.S. and Serbia, which had lost a four-setter last week to the Americans.
But the sixth-ranked Serbians have surprised the U.S. on the big stage before — taking a five-set win a year ago at the World Cup in Japan, helping force the Americans into a second-chance qualifier at Lincoln, Nebraska, in January.
It took contributions from each woman on the U.S. 12-player roster to get back into the match.
"Our team has a great culture and dynamic. We're here for each other," outside hitter Jordan Larson said. "That's what's going to show and that's what's going to carry us through."
Now, the Americans plan to take the example from beach stars Kerri Walsh Jennings and April Ross, who lost in the semifinals to Brazil before bouncing back for bronze.
Kiraly, the most decorated player of his generation as the only person with gold medals in beach and indoor volleyball, hurt to his core after this one. That's how much he loves his team, the players who are here and so many who aren't.
The plan won't change: He knows that elusive gold is still out there to be had, one day.
"One thing that we would like to accomplish, and it's not going to happen this month," Kiraly said. "I don't know if it'll happen four years from now or 52 years from now, but our job is to make an Olympic gold medal happen at some point for the history of the U.S. program. ... The fight continues."