By Anthony Boadle
RIO DE JANEIRO (Reuters) - The U.S. women's volleyball team crushed Japan in straight sets on Tuesday to stay undefeated and boost their hopes of a first Olympic gold medal.
A U.S. victory against Serbia in the semi-finals would set up a probable final against favorites Brazil, who have beaten the United States in the gold-medal match during the past two Olympics.
"We are excited that we are a step closer," said Christa Dietzen, captain of an American team that feels it is better prepared to take on Brazil this time round.
United States eliminated Japan 25-16 25-23 25-22, overcoming steadfast defensive play by the Japanese players who had a 7-point run in the third set.
That required some patience from the Americans, Dietzen said.
"When you are playing against a great defensive team like Japan, it takes 4 or 5 swings sometimes for us to put the ball down. We are patient," she told reporters.
U.S. coach Karch Kiraly called Japan the best defensive team in the world. "They have a great fighting spirit. They never give up and that pushes us to our limit," he told reporters at a post-game press conference.
Kiraly, the only person to have won Olympic gold in beach and indoor volleyball, said his team was going at it one match at a time and keeping its expectations in check in the pursuit of the gold medal.
Brazil, who have not lost a single set in the five preliminary games, play China later on Tuesday.
"We can definitely beat them this time," wing spiker Kimberly Hill, one of the tallest U.S. players at 193 cm (6 feet 4 inches), told Reuters.
"The last time we played them it was a five-set match and it wasn't easy. That shows it is going to be a battle whoever wins," she said.
Before that possible encounter with Brazil, the United States will have to overcome a surprisingly strong Serbian team that ousted Russia in straight sets 25-9 25-22 25-21 to become the first Serbian volleyball team to make an Olympic semi-final.
"We played extremely strong in attack and service, causing the Russian receivers a lot of problems," said Serbian coach Zoran Terzic.
Serbia will have to prepare for a very different game against the United States, which plays much faster and more as a team than a Russian side that relied on its two main attackers, Terzic told reporters. "We can do this," he said.
Earlier, Netherlands sent South Korea home in four sets and will go on to play the winner of Tuesday's Brazil-China showdown in the semis on Thursday before Saturday's final and bronze medal matches.
(Reporting by Anthony Boadle; Editing by Neil Robinson, Andrew Hay and Bill Rigby)