By Tom Pilcher
LONDON (Reuters) - Romanian-born goalkeeper Mihaela Ciobanu saved four out of five penalties to keep Spain ahead of South Korea in the bronze medal game on Saturday and hand the Europeans a first women's Olympic handball prize.
Spain's women, in their third Olympics, triumphed 31-29 after two periods of extra time to overcome the twice winners, who leave without a medal for only the second time in eight Games appearances.
Ciobanu, who moved from Romania 13 years ago and is now a naturalized Spaniard, spent almost the entire encounter on the bench and was brought on whenever Korea were handed a penalty.
While she failed to save her first, the 39-year-old kept out the next four though she said the Korean technique helped.
"If they take the throws quickly it's difficult but if they delay, for me the patience and confidence grow which enables me to save them," she told Reuters as the last member of the team to reach the changing room and refusing to accept praise.
"The team won it. I won the mental battles but they won the mental and physical fight today," she said.
Number one goalkeeper Silvia Navarro also put in a terrific display for the 2011 world championship bronze medalists and together they frustrated the Koreans.
Coach Jorge Duenas de Galarza said the medal was a major stepping stone for his country.
"It's historic," he told Reuters, shouting as his jubilant team began screaming behind him.
"Our concentration in a tough game today won it for us."
Jessica Alonso scored the game's final goal late in the second period of extra time after the teams had finished level following normal time and the first period of extra time.
A topsy-turvy encounter sprang to life in the final seconds of normal time with Korea goalkeeper Ju Hui keeping the scores level at 24-24 when Begona Fernandez turned and shot on target.
The Koreans then roared up the other end only to have a goal on the buzzer disallowed for an attacking foul.
South Korea had a four-goal lead in the first half and could have made it five but for a good save by the diminutive Navarro. A few minutes later, Spain were ahead after six straight strikes.
Suddenly the Spaniards, who seemed out of their depth against the prolific Koreans, found some form and when they surged into a four-goal lead after less than eight minutes of the second half they looked comfortable.
But Spain gave way under mounting Korean pressure in normal time and the deficit was dragged back forcing extra time.
Holders Norway play debutants Montenegro at 1930 GMT for the gold medal.
(Editing by Ken Ferris)
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