By Tom Pilcher
LONDON (Reuters) - South Korea beat Russia 24-23 in a titanic struggle of two of the most prolific Olympic women's team to set up a semi-final against champions Norway, who produced a stirring fightback on Tuesday against Brazil.
Twice winners South Korea met world and European champions Norway, who won the day's first quarter-final 21-19, in the semi-finals four years ago and will hope for a better result in London when the pair meet on Thursday.
Also through are Spain, who beat Croatia 25-22 to move into the last four for the first time where they will face either France or debutants Montenegro whose match starts at 1930 GMT.
Beijing bronze medallists South Korea have only failed once in seven Olympic tournaments to finish on the podium and stopped 2008 runners-up Russia, who won three titles as the Soviet Union, from scoring for 10 first-half minutes.
Russia coach Evgeny Trefilov bellowed and snarled throughout at his team, who drew level after eight minutes of the second half but that was as close as they got to overturning their opponents who performed a jig of joy on the final hooter.
Coach Kang Jae-won praised top scorer Gwon Han-na, whose six goals were invaluable in a tight, physical tussle that reduced the Russians to tears at the end.
"I think she did a great job today, that's the reason we're through," he told a news conference through an interpreter.
Earlier Norway trailed Brazil 13-9 at halftime and fell to a six-goal deficit in the second half but clawed their way back at the South Americans to book their place in the semis.
Norway only got their noses in front with just under seven minutes left on the clock, Linn-Kristin Koren firing the Scandinavians ahead before she scored the game's final goal.
Coach Thorir Hergeirsson said it had been important for him to remain calm throughout.
HARD TO BEAT
"If the coach gets stressed the players get stressed," the Icelander said. "We know if we find our concept we are hard to beat."
Norway had been lacklustre in the group stage but came alive in the knockout format, where the friendly knuckle-touching of the preliminary matches was forgotten and players regularly grappled with each other.
"The players have been a little bit stressed with all the expectations, though that's normal. We have not been on the gas but on the brake," said Hergeirsson.
Counterpart Morten Soubak was left regretting a 10-minute period in the second half when Brazil, within sight of a first Olympic handball medal, went without scoring.
"We have very experienced players. It was the fact we could not organise our attack to get through the defence," the Dane said.
Following the tears and drama of the frantic first quarter-final, calm was restored in a relatively straightforward win for Spain where the Croatian women's first Olympics came to a end.
Elisabeth Pinedo Saenz top scored with seven goals and was a picture of joy as she walked back to the changing rooms.
"I can't believe it. I'm still taking it all in," she told Reuters. "We'll do whatever we can to get a medal."
(Editing by Matt Falloon, Peter Rutherford and Michael Holden)