SYDNEY, Australia (AP) _ It seemed odd for Russian coach Nikolai Karpol to be so calm, and even odder for him to let one of his players speak in public.

But when one reporter asked setter Elena Vasilevska whether it was hard playing for a coach who is so demonstrative, Karpol answered for her. So the question was repeated.

``No, it's not difficult at all,'' the young woman answered, making even Karpol smile.

His method is straight out of the old Soviet Union playbook: fear and intimidation. But Karpol has motivated an inexperienced group to reach the gold-medal match of women's volleyball, a sport the USSR dominated but suddenly found more difficult when the union broke up.

Russia defeated the United States on Thursday in a match filled with comebacks, and Karpol's usual screaming, fist-shaking tantrums. Now his team will go for its fifth gold medal against Cuba, which struggled past arch-rival Brazil in five games.

The same teams met in 1992, with Cuba winning the first of its consecutive golds.

``Today our team looks the exact opposite,'' Karpol said. ``In Barcelona, we had a very experienced team, and the Cubans were very young. Now we are young and they have the experience. If we have enough youth, we will win. It's quite possible that wisdom will conquer.''

Karpol led Russia to its last gold medal, in 1988. After that, the team took second and then fourth in Atlanta, the first time the nation had not won either gold or silver in an Olympics.

On the court, Karpol is about as subtle as a warm shot of Stoli. He can fly into a rage even when his team scores, pacing near the sideline in his gray suit and excoriating his players. During timeouts, he really lets them have it, yelling until his face reddens and his white hair shakes. Sometimes he just glares, his lower lip sticking out.

They players don't dare look him in the eye, and if they make a mistake, they often turn a quick, nervous glance toward him. But they must know their best chance to win is with him there.

``They're very well coached,'' said American Kerri Walsh. ``Karpol is great. It's a pretty extreme difference in styles between him and our coach (Mick Haley), but Russia doesn't make mistakes.''

They can't make many against Cuba, a dynasty led by 6-foot-3 blocker Regla Torres, who was only 17 when the team started pounding everybody in 1992.

Torres was sensational during two critical scoring runs that helped the Cubans defeat Brazil, 27-29, 25-19, 21-25, 25-19, 15-9.

Brazil took a 16-9 lead in the second game before Cuba reeled off nine straight points. After the Brazilians got a point, Cuba ran off four more for a 22-17 lead.

Brazil's Leila Barros brought her team back, directing the offense and flinging her 5-foot-10 body at the net to attack balls. Barros' kill gave Brazil a 19-15 lead, and it easily won the third game for a 2-1 advantage.

Cuba squared the match with the help of a 7-0 run in the fourth game, and never trailed in the deciding fifth.

The teams got into a notorious slap-fight during the 1996 semifinals, won by Cuba. But this one was peaceful, with only a few steely glances. When it was over, the players shook hands and had nothing but kind words for each other.

``They're good girls,'' said Mireya Luis. ``I sympathize with them.''

``I think there were problems, but those problems are nonexistent now,'' added Cuban captain Regla Bell said.

Brazil's best finish remains the bronze in 1996, which is sure to frustrate volleyball-crazed fans back home who already have watched both their beach volleyball teams settle for silver, then the men's indoor team lose in the quarterfinals.

``It's an enormous disappointment to yet again not be able to reach the finals,'' Brazilian coach Bernado Rezende said. ``We fell to what is unquestionably the dominant team of the '90s, and in the year 2000.''