GULF SHORES, Alabama — Final four?

NCAA beach volleyball has a final three, and two of them will vie for a chance to beat the odds-on favorite, USC.

The defending-champion Trojans (36-1), have won 35 matches in a row since losing the season opener at UCLA. It’s as close to wire-to-wire as you can get.

Saturday, top-ranked and top-seeded USC beat fourth-seeded Florida State 3-1 and then — for the fifth time since that first match on March 5 — beat UCLA again. This time it was 3-0, which put the Trojans in the driver’s seat heading into Sunday.

That’s because they await the winner of Sunday’s 11 a.m. Central match between UCLA and Florida State. The championship match is at 3 p.m. and USC will try to repeat and win the NCAA’s National Collegiate Beach Volleyball Championship for the fourth time.

This event became an NCAA championship in 2016 and USC won the first two. UCLA won in 2018 and ’19, it was canceled in 2020, and last year USC won it all again.

Against UCLA, USC won at No. 2 when Megan Kraft and Sammy Slater beat Jaden Whitmarsh and Devon Newberry 21-13, 21-18 and at No. 4 when the Nourse twins, Audrey and Nicole, beat Marlie Monserez and Rileigh Powers 21-17, 21-13.

All USC had to do was win one of the next three and clinched it when the No. 1 pair of Tina Graudina, the Latvian Olympian, and Hailey Harward beat Lexy Denaburg and Abby Van Winkle 21-16, 21-13. Harward and Graudina are 29-1 on No. 1 this season. 

USC’s Hailey Harward, left, and Tina Graudina/Tim Britt

“She is so gifted,” Harward said of Graudina, who took fourth in Tokyo with Latvian partner Anastasija Kravcenoka. “And not only her athleticism and her focus, but her support of me as a partner. How can you not have fun out there when your partner can do magic tricks but then also she’s so humble and she’ so supportive. That’s where I get the most joy, from our interactions, let alone the volleyball stuff.”

Being up 2-0 is a nice feeling when the 1s, 3s, and 5s take the court.

“The 2s and 4s set us up so nicely,” Harward said, noting that being up 2-0 is no guarantee, especially the way this tournament has gone this week. 

None of that was lost on Audrey Nourse, the right-hander. Her identical twin, Nicole, is a lefty. Together they make an incredible No. 4 pair (22-4 this season on that court) with speed, talent, and all the unsaid intangibles that twins have in this sport (think UCLA’s McNamaras, Arizona’s Witts, and in this tournament, Georgia State’s Angel and Bella Ferary).

“The mindset was to set the tone for our team,” said Audrey Nourse, a product of Newport Beach, California. “We wanted to put a point on the board, not for ourselves but for our team. And we just wanted to go in super aggressive from the very beginning and play our game.”

Friday there were supposed to be six matches, but a morning rain delay kept that from happening. So the two winners-bracket matches were played early Saturday when USC sent Florida State to the losers bracket 3-1 and UCLA did the same to Georgia State 3-0.

After a five-hour break, LMU sent Georgia State packing 3-1 and Florida State did the same to LSU. Conference USA-champion Georgia State, winning two matches in this tournament for the first time, ended its season 28-13. LSU, an at-large from the CCSA, finished 32-12.

Then USC beat UCLA (34-8). 

UCLA scouted LMU-Florida State, which ran past 7 p.m. Central. That meant more disrespect for the NCAA men’s volleyball tournament championship match at UCLA, also set for ESPN2. The men’s volleyball broadcast began on ESPN3 and finally made it to ESPN2 at 7:12 p.m. with the score tied at 8.

Florida State won at Nos. 2 and 4 but had to grind to close it out, finally doing so at No. 5. Florida State improved to 32-10 while LMU’s season ended 32-9.

UCLA beat Florida State twice this season, 3-2 on March 18 here in Gulf Shores, and 3-2 at Cal Poly three weeks ago. 

“SC put together a really great match. They handled us,” UCLA coach Stein Metzger said. “Not much more I can say about that. I know we can play better. Our goal now is to get back into that match and have another opportunity to play them.”

And now there’s one match left for USC no matter who emerges from UCLA vs. xxx.

“It just such a blessing every time we get to play together,” said Harward, the graduate student defender from Phoenix who played three years indoors at Long Beach State and two years of beach before transferring to USC. 

“I hadn’t really thought about it until this moment that we only have one more match, but it’s a blessing every time I get to be on the court with everyone one of these people.”

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