RIO DE JANEIRO >> Max Holt did a little bit of everything. At the net, digging balls from just off the floor, finishing points with big, leaping swings.
He and David Lee stuffed the Italians with stellar blocking. Setter Micah Christenson contributed his own blocks and even a kill to end the third set. Matt Anderson, Aaron Russell and Taylor Sander provided power hitting from every corner.
Mighty Italy just had a little more in a match that will surely become an Olympic volleyball classic.
For nearly 2 1/2 hours Friday, the young, overachieving Americans stayed with an Italian group that U.S. coach John Speraw considers the world's most talented and destined for gold in Brazil.
The Americans, who began the tournament with an 0-2 start that included a loss to Italy 10 days earlier, ran off four straight victories before falling in a riveting five-set semifinal that Italy won 30-28, 26-28, 9-25, 25-22, 15-9.
"This team fought the entire time," Lee said. "Losing that first set made us fight even harder. We couldn't sustain that same level we had in the second and third to put the team out in the fourth set. We had an advantage in the fourth, we had a small lull in energy and that's when they came back, and they have such good servers that team can come back at any time and be back in a game. You can never count them out."
The Italians will play for gold Sunday against the winner of Friday's semifinal between defending champion Russia and host Brazil.
"It was strange. There was a really strong force inside us telling us, 'Don't give up, keep fighting,"' Italy's Ivan Zaytsev said.
His team fought, all right. Afterward, the players fell to the floor, piling on each other.
Lee brought his American teammates into a huddle for an embrace. Then Anderson and Sander clapped to the crowd as the U.S. waited at the net to shake hands with the winners.
In the fifth set, Osmany Juantorena served an ace for a 12-8 lead and Russell let a ball drop as Holt covered his face with his shirt.
After an embarrassing third-set flop, Italy forced a deciding fifth set by closing the fourth on a 6-0 run — getting three straight aces by Zaytsev, including the next-to-last point that was initially called long but overturned on review for set point.
"Today, the teams have played more than a match," Italy coach Gianlorenzo Blengini said.
The American men have eight first-time Olympians.
"I'm really sad this team didn't make it because they're so good and they deserved to be in the final," said Lee, who won gold in Beijing eight years ago and is in his third Olympics. "I don't care about how old they are. They're fighters."
Italy ended the American men's gold-medal aspirations for a second straight Olympics. The U.S. will play for bronze, just like the top-ranked American women, who lost in five sets to Serbia on Thursday.
The intensity of Friday's match was captured in a wild first set in which the Americans had five set points. With the score 25-25, Italy's Massimo Colaci made a lunging, one-handed get from the ground before teammate Filippo Lanza sent the ball over the net from his knees near the baseline to keep the rally going.
The score was tied again, at 28. Russell signaled that Italy captain Emanuele Birarelli's serve was going out and let the ball drop. Italy's players rushed the net to argue to referee Arturo di Giacomo of Belgium, contending the Americans touched the ball. He overruled the call and what had gone to a 29-28 lead for the U.S. suddenly turned to 29-28 for Italy, which won the set 30-28.
"My players gave it everything that they could today. I couldn't ask any more," Speraw said. "I almost feel today we need to mourn."