On the verge of missing the gold-medal game for the first time, the U.S. women's soccer team caught a break when the referee made a call rarely seen in the sport.
Then the Americans put together a final winning surge, inspired by the familiar: a pep talk from co-captain Abby Wambach.
"I know I've said this before," the former Gator said she told her teammates during extra time. "But it really does just take one moment and one chance, one moment of brilliance for somebody to do something individually spectacular."
The moment came beyond the 90 minutes of regular time, beyond the scheduled 30 minutes of extra time. In the third and final minute of injury time, with goalkeeper Hope Solo already preparing for a penalty kick shootout, Alex Morgan looped in a 6-yard header on a long cross from Heather O'Reilly, giving the United States a 4-3 win over Canada in the Olympic semifinals at Old Trafford.
"It was amazing," Morgan said of her goal. "I didn't even see it go in. They wanted it, and we wanted it. And we got it."
Next comes the game the Americans have been eyeing for more than a year, a rematch with Japan, a 2-1 semifinal winner over France, on Thursday at Wembley Stadium with gold on the line. The top-ranked Americans lost to Japan on penalty kicks in the World Cup final last summer, a stunning blow that became a source of motivation as the players prepared for the Olympics.
The Americans overcame three one-goal deficits, all due to Christine Sinclair goals in the 22nd, 67th and 73rd minutes. Megan Rapinoe scored in the 54th and 70th minutes and Wambach in the 80th for the United States.
It was the sequence that led to Wambach's tying goal that left the Canadians fuming. It started when goalkeeper Erin McLeod was whistled for holding the ball more than six seconds, a call even U.S. coach Pia Sundhage said she had never seen before.
That gave the Americans an indirect free kick inside the area. Rapinoe took the kick and rammed it into the Canadian wall, the ball glancing off the arm of defender Marie-Eve Nault. Referee Christiana Pedersen of Norway then awarded the United States a penalty kick, which Wambach converted off the left post.
McLeod said she did not receive the usual warning from the referee about holding the ball too long, although she said the linesman had told her at the start of the second half not to slow play.
"I think the referee was very one-sided," McLeod said. "We feel like we got robbed in this game."
Canada coach John Herdman said he believed the referee also missed a hand ball in front of the U.S. goal.
Referring to Thursday's bronze medal game, Sinclair said, "Maybe the referee will wear a Canadian jersey for this game."
The U.S. team has played in the title match in every Summer Games since women's soccer was introduced in 1996. It won the gold in 1996, 2004 and 2008 and got the silver in 2000.
In many ways this win was reminiscent of the landmark comeback victory against Brazil in last year's World Cup, when Wambach willed the team to a shootout win in the quarterfinals. Wambach knew her teammates could rally against the Canadians.
"Even when they scored their third goal, there was something in me that knew that we had more, that we could give more."