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U.S. 3, China 2

July 28, 1996

COLUMBUS, Ga. (AP) _ One late-inning swing of the bat resulted in a badly needed swing in momentum for the favored U.S. Olympic women’s softball team.

Sheila Cornell drove a pitch from Lihong Wang, China’s ace who had just come on in relief, over the center-field fence for two-run homer in the sixth inning and a 3-2 victory over China on Saturday.

``It was the most awesome feeling I’ve ever had in my life,″ said Cornell, a 5-foot-10 first baseman. ``It was in my strike zone, a change-up. I really wasn’t looking for it. I was just focused on the moment and doing my job.″

Kim Maher opened the sixth with a walk off Yaju Liu, who was replaced by Lihong. Cornell followed with her third homer of the Olympics.

With the victory, the U.S. team _ stunned 2-1 by Australia on Friday for only its second loss in international play since 1986 _ reclaimed the role of gold medal favorite.

The top-seeded Americans (6-1) play Japan (4-2) and China (5-2) meets Australia (5-2) Monday in the semifinals. The winners play Tuesday for the gold medal.

``I don’t think we ever lost being the favorite for the gold,″ Cornell said. ``I don’t think our confidence ever waned. We expect to win the gold medal, but we’ve got to go on the field and do it.″

With the screaming, partisan sellout crowd of 8,500 chanting ``U-S-A, U-S-A,″ U.S. pitcher Michelle Smith survived a rocky sixth inning _ giving up a two-run homer by Xuqing Liu _ for the victory.

``It was a major, major mistake,″ said Smith, who threw a changeup to Xuqing she really didn’t want to deliver. ``I’m a veteran and I never should have let it happen.″

Xuqing had singled off the same pitch earlier in the game.

Smith gave up five hits _ four in the sixth _ and struck out 12, including the final two outs of the game.

The Americans managed to shake off the 10-inning loss to Australia, only their second defeat in 118 games since 1986.

In that game, Lisa Fernandez had a perfect game for 9 2-3 innings before Joanne Brown hit a two-run homer. The Americans would have won 1-0 in the regulation seven innings, but Dani Tyler’s apparent homer was aborted when she failed to touch home plate and was called out.

Cornell made sure not to repeat that mistake, emphatically jumping on the plate with both feet after her homer.

The other previous defeat by the United States was to China, 1-0 in a preliminary game at the 1995 Superball Classic. The U.S. team came back to beat China 8-0 for the title.

The Americans scored first Saturday in the second inning following consecutive singles by Kim Maher, Cornell and Dionna Harris, who reached on a bunt. China starter Ying Ma was replaced by Yaju, who was greeted by a sacrifice fly by Gillian Boxx.

The Americans threatened to break it open when Leah O’Brien singled to left, reloading the bases. But Laura Berg bounced into a force out at the plate and Dot Richardson struck out.

In other games Saturday, Australia beat Canada 5-2 and the Netherlands defeated Puerto Rico 2-0. The Netherlands, Puerto Rico, Canada and Taiwan were eliminated.

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