Holders Norway showed their desire to hang onto their Olympic crown as they swept into the final of the women’s handball on Thursday where a sky-high Montenegro, assured of the country’s first Games medal, await them.
The tiny Balkan state, only recognized officially as an Olympic nation in 2007, won their semi-final 27-26 against Spain to stand a chance at a first gold, a prospect which sent their fans into ecstasy in the stands.
Montenegro’s players promptly emptied their water bottles over teammates being interviewed amid their elation at the achievement.
Norway’s 5-million population, when compared to Montenegro’s 680,000, hardly makes them a giant, but the world, Olympic and European champions have had their feathers ruffled in London before finally flexing their muscles in a 31-25 win over South Korea.
Montenegro coach Dragan Adzic nodded confidently when asked if he had expected to reach the final and said his team had nothing to lose.
“Norway is the absolute favorite. They’re the best team because they’re champions of everything. We’ll do everything we can to surprise them,” he said with a glint in his eye.
However, their final opponents were irresistible from the off in the day’s first semi as they bounded joyfully around the court, streaking to victory and give a perfect response to a critical Norwegian media.
“It sent a message to the press that no one can mess with us and our morale, because it’s always on top,” Camilla Herrem said.
Herrem and her teammates lifted up their shirts after they scraped past Brazil in the last eight to reveal the words “Norges Lagand” (Norwegian Team Morale) to the assembled media and against Korea they showed they had the stomach for a fight.
Norway swarmed all over an overawed South Korea throughout, their coach Kang Jae-won saying his players had been affected by the frenzied atmosphere in the Basketball Arena.
While Norway coach Thorir Hergeirsson said that was a factor, he was more eager to speak about his team’s exploits.
“We have a dream and we still have a possibility to live out this dream,” the Icelander said.
His players, urged on by the majority of the 12,000 capacity arena, came out of their shells at the start of a match for the first time all tournament.
So breathless was the high-scoring first half, which ended 18-15, that the dizzy players walked into the wrong exit tunnel before they were redirected to the other side of the court.
With cow bells, more commonly heard on the ski slopes, ringing around the stadium, Norway made the new venue their own after the switch from the Copper Box on Wednesday following the quarter-finals.
Guided by world player of the year Heidi Loke they were lethal in front of goal, but it was goalkeeper Katrine Haraldsen who stole the show, earning praise from Hergeirsson.
“She’s been working and working all the days, and today she showed why she’s one of the greatest goalkeepers in the world,” he said.
Norway’s defense will need to be solid again to keep out tournament top-scorer Katarina Bulatovic, who stands taller than any of the Scandinavian team.
The teams meet at 7:30 GMT on Saturday after Spain, seeking a first women’s Olympic handball medal, take on twice-winners South Korea, who only once in seven previous Games appearances have finished outside the top three.