Even four years after the fact, U.S. goalkeeper Briana Scurry can get worked up as if the defeat occurred yesterday. Mention the U.S. women's national team's experience in the last Women's World Cup in 1995, and Scurry gets enraged all over again.

Scurry vividly recalls the scene after Norway defeated the U.S. team in the semifinals of the 1995 tournament, preventing the United States from winning its second straight Women's World Cup title.

When the final whistle blew in 1995, U.S. players collapsed where they stood. Norwegian players gathered and, in a strange celebration, latched onto each other's ankles and did a crab-like dance all over the field.

"That," Scurry said in the shade on a scorching afternoon at the team's training site at Pomona College, "had a huge impact on me. I was literally mortified. I was appalled. I felt disrespected. I won't forget that when Saturday comes."

Had that defeat not occurred, the United States might have been seeking its third championship Saturday when it meets China at the Rose Bowl in Pasadena, Calif., for the 1999 Women's World Cup final.

Instead, Norway went on to win the title. And, four years later, the U.S. players are trying to bring the Cup back home.

"We all suffered that day, and we all made vows that day, and every day, including now, we still have that loss in us," U.S. Coach Tony DiCicco said. "There are two things that I don't want this team to forget: how we felt in 1995, and how we felt in 1996."

In 1996, the U.S. team redeemed itself by winning the first Olympic gold medal awarded in women's soccer with a 2-1 defeat of China in front of more than 76,000 spectators in Athens, Ga. Players say the pain they felt in 1995 pushed them to their Olympic success.

And, they say, it propels them to this day.

"That was one of the lowest points of my career," U.S. midfielder Julie Foudy said. "The most memorable moment was sitting on the field after that loss. I had an epiphany as an athlete. Something needed to change."

Said defender Carla Overbeck: "It's a terrible feeling when you lose. After we had been at our own little places on the field, we came together as a group and vowed that we never wanted to feel this way again, that we would never let this happen again."

For the United States to prevent a recurrence this Saturday, it will have to defeat what has been the most impressive team in the tournament. The Chinese crushed Norway, the defending champs, by a 5-0 margin in their semifinal Sunday. The United States, meanwhile, struggled to defeat Brazil in its semifinal. The 2-0 victory was secured with a late penalty kick.

China also defeated the United States twice in three meetings this year. The Chinese feature one of the world's best goalkeepers, Gao Hong, and one of the world's best forwards, Sun Wen, and -- according to Wen -- a more confident and unified team than ever.

Perhaps the biggest indication that DiCicco fears the explosive, technically sound Chinese came in attempts this week to heap pressure into their corner.

"The Chinese are the favorite," DiCicco said. "They are definitely the favorite. They've beaten us two out of three times. . . . They've beaten the world champion. They destroyed the world champion. For them not to win, that would be a terrible thing in China."

A loss would be agonizing for the U.S. team as well. But, for the first time since the Cup began June 19, the tournament's welfare doesn't depend on a U.S. victory. Its success was ensured when the United States advanced to the final, turning this week into a thrilling countdown to Saturday.

Tickets for the final sold out within hours of the conclusion of the U.S.-Brazil match. A sellout crowd of 88,000 is expected, including President Clinton.

Even if the United States loses, much will still have been done for women's soccer, and soccer in general, in this country. About 650,000 people will have attended the tournament. Tens of thousands of little girls -- and boys -- will have been inspired. An unprecedented amount of excitement already will have been generated for the sport.

What could be a better situation than that?

"I'll be really ticked off if we lose, whether it helps the growth of women's soccer or not," U.S. midfielder Kristine Lilly said. "Our mentality has never changed. I don't think it ever will."

CAPTION: U.S. players Amanda Cromwell, left, and Tiffany Roberts were dejected after '95 World Cup loss to Norway.

CAPTION: U.S. women's team jogs on campus of Pomona College in preparation for Saturday's championship match with China.

CAPTION: Forward Mia Hamm dribbles past teammate at practice yesterday. The U.S. has lost to China, Saturday's opponent, twice in three meetings this year.