By Anthony Boadle
RIO DE JANEIRO (Reuters) - Italy's men's volleyball team put an end to a U.S. winning streak and ousted the Americans from the Rio Games in a five-set battle on Friday to go through to the final seeking their first Olympic gold medal.
Italy beat the United States 30-28 26-28 9-25 25-22 15-9 and will face defending gold medalists Russia or defending silver medalists Brazil on Sunday.
The Americans, seeking their fourth gold in the sport, went down to Italy in four sets in the preliminary round, and came back from the brink of elimination after a stunning win over hosts Brazil. But their run of four straight victories ended at the hands of their nemesis Italy.
With unstoppable spikes and ace serves by their top scorer Ivan Zaytsev, the Italians took the hard-fought first set.
The United States recovered the lead in the second set despite a barrage of killer spikes by Osmany Juantorena, a former Cuba national team wing spiker now playing for Italy.
The Americans streaked ahead with a 15-point run in the third with its top scorers outside hitter Matt Anderson and main server and setter Micah Christenson having a field day.
But Italy came back to secure victory with aces by Zaytsev and Juantorena in the fourth set and tie-breaker.
"We were on such a high in the third set, but then we had a drop in energy in the fourth and they took advantage of that," Anderson told reporters.
U.S. coach John Speraw, who brought a young team to Rio with eight players who had never competed in the Olympics, said Italy was playing the finest volleyball in the Games, and his men responded to the challenges well.
"It just wasn't enough in the end," he added.
Italian captain Emanuele Birarelli said the fourth set aces delivered by Zaytsev, an Italian-born star of Russian descent, were decisive.
"Ivan had an incredible streak of serves that were the key to winning the match at the crucial moment," he said at the post-game news conference.
The crowd in Rio's Maracanazinho stadium favored the Italians, roaring "Italia, Italia!" in support. The stadium speakers blared "Volare" when the Italians scored and "YMCA" when the Americans scored.
Current Olympic champions Russia play Brazil later on Friday.
Birarelli said Italy is ready to take on either. "We are not afraid of any team in the world now. We know our strength and we have a good chance to win the gold," he said.
(Reporting by Anthony Boadle; Editing by Meredith Mazzilli)