LONDON -- It was the kind of blunder that could have haunted a rookie coach for the rest of his career.
U.S. women's water polo coach Adam Krikorian called an illegal time out Tuesday with one second left in regulation to allow Australia to get a score-tying penalty shot in a thrilling Olympic semifinal game at the Aquatics Centre.
But thanks to Danville's Maggie Steffens, the mistake will be nothing more than an asterisk. She scored four goals -- including the game winner in the first overtime -- to lead the Americans to the gold-medal match for the third time in four Olympics.
Steffens scored on a skip shot underneath the arm of Aussie goalkeeper Victoria Brown, and Kami Craig added another in overtime as the United States defeated Australia 11-9. The Americans will try to win their first gold medal in history Thursday when they meet Spain, which defeated Hungary 10-9 in the other semifinal game.
It was nothing less than another epic Olympic matchup between the United States and Australia, teams that met for the first Olympic title in Sydney in 2000. Australia won that historic game that came down to the final seconds. The Americans defeated the Aussies 9-8 in the semifinals of the Beijing Games four years go.
"They bring it, we bring it," said Lauren Wenger, who had two goals. "It's always going to be a great game."
Most expected the match Tuesday played in front of a vocal audience to provide drama. But this one was
It should have ended in regulation instead of the anxious moments through two overtimes. It was understandable how Krikorian, who grew up in Mountain View, misread the play in the final, excruciating second of regulation. He thought his goalkeeper, Betsy Armstrong, had control of the ball. Teams cannot request a timeout without possession.
"Everything happened so quickly," Krikorian said. "It went through my mind that I might have blown it. But I said to my players that this is not going to stop us."
Australia coach Greg McFadden said the penalty was "a kind of justice" because he felt his team deserved a free shot a few seconds earlier.
"We got a lifeline," he said.
The sudden change didn't deflate the Americans, according to Craig.
What asked what happened on the last-second play, she said, "Who knows, who cares? We were ready to play overtime. We practice for these high-pressure situations."
No surprise that it was Steffens, 19, who did the heavy lifting. She postponed attending Stanford for a year to train with the U.S. national team. In her Olympic debut the former Monte Vista High star has emerged as one of the world's best scorers.
She has 16 goals in five matches and suddenly has become the player opponents try to stop. That's not always easy as Steffens showed in the second quarter Tuesday.
Her first goal came from an outside shot on an advantage situation. Steffens sent a missile into the upper right of the net where Brown couldn't reach. A minute later Steffens got free on the left side and slipped the ball over Brown's head for another goal.
"She doesn't play like a newcomer," Krikorian said.
While the Americans were powered by Steffens in the overtime, Australia lost momentum.
"It was another life for us and with the extra-time it gave us another chance, but we were just so tired at the end," said Ash Southern, who led her team with four goals.
Now the young U.S. players have a chance to do something special against Spain, a team the Americans tied 9-9 during preliminary action.
Veterans Brenda Villa and Heather Petri are hoping to win their first Olympic title after finishing second twice and third once. Villa, a Stanford graduate, has been one of the country's most prominent players since playing against boys in Commerce in the 1990s. Petri, a former Cal standout, helped start the girls water polo program at Orinda's Miramonte High.
They still have prominent roles on the team. But Steffens has quickly become the face of the Americans.
Yet all the teen wanted to talk about was her sister Jessica's lone goal Tuesday that gave the United States an 8-6 lead.
"Jess's goal was clutch," she said of the defender.
It reminded Steffens of watching from the stands four years ago while rooting for her sister at the Beijing Games.
"If you could have seen me when she scored, I was jumping around like a crazy thing."
Sounds like the way American supporters have reacted for Maggie Steffens in London.