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Croatia wins 1st Olympic water polo title

Sunday - 8/12/2012, 2:55pm  ET

By RYAN LUCAS
Associated Press

LONDON (AP) - Winning the country's first Olympic water polo title was grueling enough. Celebrating the title might be more exhausting.

Croatia defeated Italy 8-6 for the men's gold medal Sunday, with goalkeeper Josip Pavic anchoring a sparkling defense and Miho Boskovic and Maro Jokovic both scoring twice in the second half.

Croatia went 8-0 record during the tournament, adding a medal to the silver it won at the 1996 Atlanta Games.

"We played amazing the whole tournament," Boskovic said. "I think we deserve 100 percent this medal. We played the best water polo and did our finest performance the last match."

Now the real work begins.

"For sure, we will not sleep the next two or three days," he said.

With two of the best defenses and goalkeepers in the tournament facing off, the final began as a defensive struggle. Croatia took control early in the second half after Boskovic struck from long distance and then converted a penalty to take a 5-3 lead.

Jokovic gave Croatia more breathing room in the fourth quarter with two more goals, setting the country's fans, dressed in their traditional red-and-white checkered shirts, into a flag-waving frenzy.

"The whole tournament, our team was playing excellent, all eight games we were dominating all the teams," coach Ratko Rudic said. "For sure we deserved this gold medal."

No one is questioning that, particularly not Italy, which also lost to Croatia in the preliminary round 11-6.

"Today, they played better than us. The gold medal is for them, absolutely," Italy's Valentino Gallo said. "The defense of Croatia is very strong. They are strong in every facet of the game. They are the best team for sure. They win every match, every match easy."

The key to Croatia's run was an unyielding defense and an excellent goalkeeper in Pavic, who finished the tournament with a competition-leading save percentage of 70 percent.

"Pavic is I think the best goalkeeper in this tournament," Croatia's Samir Barac said. "With him, it's very, very easy to win."

Since a ninth-place finish at the 2012 European championship, Croatia has been on a roll, winning the FINA World League Finals last month.

In London, Croatia almost made it look easy, topping its group in the preliminary round before crushing the 2008 silver medalist United States 8-2 in the quarterfinals and muscling its way past European championship runner-up Montenegro 7-5 in the semifinals.

Croatia was a part of traditional water polo heavyweight Yugoslavia, which won three Olympic titles before the country's breakup. Croatia played in its first Olympics as an independent country in 1992 and won silver four year later at the Atlanta Games. Now it's on the top of the podium.

"This is the first. I hope it's not the only one," center forward Niksa Dobud said.

And with a young team _ at least eight of the 13 players are under 30 _ this group might be capable of winning a few more itself.

After the final buzzer, Croatia's players and coaches leaped into the pool, tearing the goal down and sitting on top of it in the water. They danced and sang as their fans chanted their country's name, "Hrvatska! Hrvatska!"

The Italians were looking for their fourth Olympic water polo gold and first since 1992. They could only console each other on the other end of the pool.

The 2011 world champion Italians ousted three-time defending champion Hungary in the quarterfinals and then gold medal-favorite Serbia in the semifinals, but fell short against Croatia.

"We are very pleased with silver," Italy defender Maurizio Felugo said. "However, there is a slight element of disappointment as we dreamed of gold. But we are a young team, and we have only been together for three years. We will be back in Rio."

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Ryan Lucas can be reached on twitter at http://www.twitter.com/relucasz


(Copyright 2012 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.)