Croatia came into today's quarterfinal match as the top ranked men's water polo team in the world. Montenegro entered as European champions and first-time Olympic competitors. Their country became an independent state only two years ago when they separated from another water polo power, Serbia.
Croatia had the advantage of depth on the bench and a high-powered offense. Including their one loss to the United States in preliminary play, the Croatians had outscored their opponents by an average of five goals (6.75 goals if the loss to the U.S. is not counted).
Montenegro's advantage was psychological. They had defeated the Croatians in the European championship one month prior and had tied the 2000 and 2004 Olympic champions, Hungary, in preliminary play.
The Croatians were outscored 3-1 in the first quarter. In the second, Croatia blocked a five-meter penalty shot blocked to give them some momentum.
Montenegro scored first in the second period, followed by a Croatian goal on a power play. But Montenegro's Nikola Janovic scored to put his side up 5-2.
Then Croatia's two-meter man, Igor Hinic, took over. The 6'6", 238-pound Hinic scored two goals in 80 seconds from in front of the goal, both without the help of a power play. The half ended with Montenegro up by one.
Montenegro scored in the early part of the third quarter. But as the number of Montenegran players earning two exclusion fouls grew (three is the limit), Croatia tried to get the ball back into Hinic at two-meters. The Croatians hoped Hinic would draw some more exclusion fouls from Montenegro, causing ejections from their thin squad.
But Montenegro held off the Croatians for the entire third period, which included three Croatian power play opportunities.
Montenegro entered the fourth quarter with four players having two exclusion fouls. Milan Ticic quickly received his third foul and was ejected.
Croatia scored on the ensuing power play to put them within one, but Vladimir Gojkovic scored his second goal on a counter attack a few minutes later to put Montenegro up 7-5.
Croatia scored on another power play, and attempted to isolate Hinic to draw fouls on ensuing offensive sets. Another Montenegro player received his third exclusion and was ejected.
Montenegro played solid defense in the closing minutes and the Olympic newcomers were able to stop a Croatian pass into two-meters in the closing seconds to win the match.
Montenegro will advance to play Hungary, who had a bye in the quarterfinals, again in the semifinals. The two teams tied at 10 when they met in the preliminaries. Montenegro was three of eight on their power plays.
In the other men's quarterfinals, Serbia handled Spain 9-5 and will play the United States in the semifinal. The United States was defeated by Serbia 2-4 in the preliminaries, but still managed to win their group over the Serbs and receive a bye for the quarterfinals.
If Serbia and Montenegro win their semifinal games, the two countries that were formerly one nation would face off each other in the gold medal match.