By Stephen Eisenhammer

RIO DE JANEIRO (Reuters) - Brazilians Alison Cerutti and Bruno Schmidt moved one step closer to a men's Olympic beach volleyball gold medal, beating Nicholas Lucena and Phil Dalhausser of the United States in a thrilling quarter-final on Monday.

The wind picked up just before the match, tearing banners from the scaffolding at the front of the arena, but the Brazilians handled the conditions better to win 21-14 12-21 15-9 in front of an ecstatic Copacabana crowd.

"The strategy was to use the wind... We started the third set hard, put on early pressure and it worked for us," Schmidt told reporters.

This was a match that many thought would be the final, but an upset in the pool stages meant Brazil qualified as a second seed and entered the same side of the competition as the unbeaten Americans.

In a powerful and aggressive performance, Cerutti and Schmidt dived about the sand, hustling for every point and thriving on a raucous home crowd that chanted throughout.

Cerutti lived up to his nickname "the mammoth", throwing his heavy-set two-meter frame into a sequence of point-winning spikes and blocks.

Repeatedly, he demanded more from the crowd, waving his arms to the sky.

"The fans are our third player... that's what's making the difference for us," Cerutti said. "That was a game deserving of an Olympic final."

For the Americans it was an unfortunate end to a strong campaign, going out without a medal in the quarter-finals.

"They handled the wind better than us, that's basically the difference," Dalhausser said. "It was really tough conditions and I'm impressed with how well they did with it."

Brazil will now play Alexander Brouwer and Robert Meeuwsen of the Netherlands in the semi-finals on Tuesday after they beat fellow Dutchmen Reinder Nummerdor and Christiaan Varenhorst 25-23 21-17.

(Editing by Ed Osmond)