U.S. women’s volleyball squad tops Japan in FIVB World Grand Prix showdown

The Japan women’s volleyball team was handed its second straight defeat at the FIVB World Grand Prix on Saturday when it was beaten in four sets by the United States.

Japan, which had won its first six matches before the streak came to an end on the first day of the Sendai meet in Pool M on Friday, lost 25-17, 25-19, 21-25, 25-18 at Sendai Municipal Gymnasium. The Americans improved to 7-1 in the tournament.

Captain Kristin Lynn Hildebrand led the United States with 21 points and Kelly Murphy scored 16, while the top scorer for Olympic bronze medalist Japan was captain Saori Kimura with 13, followed by Miyu Nagaoka with 12.

“The Americans’ block was so strong it was a big problem for us and we must sort this out before our next game,” Japan coach Masayoshi Manabe said. “Also, I don’t know why we are starting games so badly; it’s something I have to sort out.”

U.S. coach Karch Kiraly said, “I have a great respect for the Japanese program. I have been involved as a player and coach with many great competitions in Japan and with Japan national teams, so it’s always an honor to play them.

“They work so hard and are so well coached, and today it was another great challenge. Our team played smart volleyball, made some good plays and also exerted some pressure from the service line.”

Japan is already guaranteed a spot in the finals in Sapporo as the host nation.

The U.S. picked up 20 blocking points to Japan’s six and the teams had five service points each. Japan committed 18 errors to the Americans’ 25.

“Blocking is an important part of our defensive strategy and our first line of defense,” Kiraly said. “We make it more possible to be a good blocking team when we serve well. We did some of that today and that gave our blockers lots of opportunities.”

Christa Harmotto led the U.S. with seven blocks, while Hildebrand and Nicole Fawcett had four apiece. Miyu Nagaoka paced Japan with two blocks.

Not much went right for Japan in the first set — service, reception and setting were all problems — and USA cruised to an 8-3 lead at the first technical timeout. After a dropped point, Manabe hauled his players off court for a talk. Yukiko Ebata, who earned five points on the afternoon, and Kimura responded with some decent hits that narrowed the gap from 9-3 to 9-6. The game was tied at 11-11, then the American played strong to close it out.

A wide shot by Risa Shinnabe handed set point to the Americans and Murphy put them 1-0 up with a crosscourt kill. Japan failed to earn a single blocking point in the set.

“Like yesterday, we couldn’t do well at the start of the game,” Kimura said later.

In the second game, Japan trailed 11-6, prompting Manabe to call his second timeout, but a kill and a block by Kimberly Hill ensured his team was still five points behind at the second TTO. Aided by good blocks from Akari Oumi and Mizuho Ishida (seven points), Japan closed the gap to 20-16 and Kiraly called a precautionary timeout. But he did not need to worry as his team earned set point on a kill by Hill and went 2-0 up when Fawcett blocked Kimura.

Japan rebounded to win Game 3 and prolong the match.

In Game 4, Manabe had his players off the court after dropping the first four points of the fourth set, but his team could only manage to pick up two points before the first TTO. He called his players in again after dropping three straight points to fall seven points back at 14-7, but with only Nagaoka offering any resistance, there wasn’t much the coach could do.

The Americans were five points ahead at the second TTO — despite a three-point burst by Nagaoka — and eased their way to the finish. Two good hits by Murphy brought up set point and Hildebrand finished the match off with a final tally.

On Sunday, Japan faces the Czech Republic and USA takes on Bulgaria on the final day in Sendai.