College-beach volleyball’s “Power 2” were rocked by tumultuous upsets in their conference tournaments, each seeing the Nos. 1 and 2 seeds shuttled to the contenders brackets early. But when the sand settled in the double-elimination tussles, the automatic bids to the NCAA Championship that go to tourney champions were won by the battle-weary favorites.
In the stacked Pac-12 event at Stanford that concluded Friday, top seed UCLA (37-3), ranked No. 1 in the AVCA poll, showed a champion’s mettle with a 3-0 victory over third-seeded California (28-9) in the final. The Bruins were stunned 3-2 by fourth-seeded Stanford on the tournament’s second day. Second seed USC had joined its Los Angeles archrival in the contenders bracket when it dropped a 3-2 decision to the Golden Bears from Berkeley, who were ranked No. 9 nationally.
Meanwhile, in the loaded CCSA competition in Huntsville, Alabama, top-seeded TCU (35-2), the nation’s No. 2-ranked team. gained revenge against four seed Grand Canyon (26-7) by winning the championship dual 3-0 on Saturday afternoon. The seventh-ranked Lopes had bounced the Horned Frogs 3-0 on Thursday, and the CCSA bracket had been thrown into a further tizzy when third seed LSU knocked off second seed Florida State 3-1.
Four other league tournaments were contested, with No. 5 Loyola Marymount (23-8) winning the WCC, No. 14 Georgia State (20-16) taking the Sun Belt, No. 15 Florida Atlantic (19-13) capturing Conference USA and UT Martin (27-8) hoisting the trophy in the Ohio Valley. All earned automatic bids to the single-elimination Big Beach Dance that begins Wednesday and continues Friday through Sunday in Gulf Shores, Alabama. No. 10 Long Beach State (24-14) out of the Big West, No. 17 Stetson (22-14) from the Atlantic Sun and Texas A&M-Corpus Christi (24-9) of the Southland already were AQs as conference championships.
The weekend saw only one mild upset outside of the Pac-12 and the CCSA — Florida Atlantic’s beating No. 12 Florida International (19-16) in the C-USA final — but it featured an abundance of surprises in the “Power 2.” That likely gave the NCAA selection committee clarity in the lower half of the 17-team bracket, but it could create some shuffling from 3 through 8.
The committee will huddle on Sunday morning and pairings will be announced at 11 a.m. Eastern on NCAA.com.
In shrugging off early adversity to win their respective tournaments, UCLA and TCU seemingly consolidated their positions at 1 and 2.
The Bruins plowed through elimination duals with No. 20 Arizona, No. 3 USC and No. 8 Stanford, all by 3-0 scores, just to get to the championship tilt with Cal, which over three days had beaten Arizona State 3-0, edged the Women of Troy and rolled over the host Cardinal 3-0. UCLA captured its third Pac-12 tournament title on match victories over the Bears in sweeps by Perri Brennan and Abby Van Winkle at the 2s, Jessie Smith and Marlie Monserez at the 4s and Jaden Whitmarsh and Devon Newberry at the 5s. Whitmarsh-Newberry notched the clinching points in the duals against USC, Stanford and Cal.
UCLA coach Stein Metzger said that the team’s performance in the contenders bracket, “really highlighted the resiliency and the experience and leadership in this program. We have so many experienced players on this team, and all of them stepped up.
“I took stock of the team after the loss to Stanford and could see in their faces that they were unfazed by (it). They were hungry to get back out on the court. It was a great lesson to the team that we have to have the right mindset entering a match. When you are the higher seed, you have to know that you have a target on your back and that you are going to get people’s best games. You have to be ready, and be able to handle the pressure. But you have to show up and play free regardless of who is across the net.”
Metzger was unconcerned that the loss early in the Pac-12 tournament might affect his team’s seeding.
“It doesn’t matter where we are seeded,” Metzger said. “At the end of the day, you have to play four great matches in a row to win a national championship.”
However, the events this weekend in the Pac-12s easily could have ripple effects for other conference programs.
Cal might get a significant uptick in NCAA seeding, and to a lesser extent, so could Stanford (28-12), which also defeated No. 13 Washington. The Huskies (21-15) lost two of three, but likely remain solidly in the picture for what figures to be the final at-large bid, bolstered perhaps by early season victories over fellow contenders South Carolina and Florida International.
What about USC (28-5), ranked No. 3 nationally? The Women of Troy certainly are a legitimate national-title threat, but might start a couple of notches lower in the bracket.
That’s because Grand Canyon checked a lot of the boxes used by the selection committee with an eye-opening run to the final in its first CCSA tournament.
TCU reaffirmed that it was the real deal when, with their backs to the elimination wall, the Horned Frogs ground out a 3-2 victory that ousted fourth-ranked Florida State (30-8) and dropped No. 6 LSU (26-12) 4-1. TCU’s depth played a key role in getting even with the Lopes when match victories by Maria Gonzalez and Ana Vergara (4s), Rochelle Scott and Hailey Brockett (5s) and Sutton Mactavish and Hailey Hamlett (3s) clinched its first CCSA tourney title.
A legitimate question: How many spots do the Lopes jump after victories over No. 16 South Carolina, TCU and Louisiana State? The challenge for the selection committee will be to weigh losses to USC, FSU and Loyola Marymount, and a 1-2 record with TCU, against two victories over Cal. Florida State did not strengthen its position, LSU’s optics might have gotten a bit better and an uno-dos-adios showing by South Carolina (19-12) likely did it no good.
Away from the “Power 2” chaos, Loyola Marymount cruised through the West Coast Conference bracket in Santa Monica undefeated and claimed its fourth consecutive league-tournament title with a 3-0 victory over No. 19 Pepperdine (19-14). The Lions also beat the rival Waves in the semifinal 4-1. Pepperdine seems out of the at-large picture.
Florida Atlantic ran the table in the C-USA tourney in Fort Lauderdale, dropping one match in victories over No. 18 Tulane (24-10) and UAB, before topping rival Florida International 3-0 in the final. An early loss to UAB (18-16) figures to have sabotaged FIU’s odds of an at-large bid.
Georgia State took care of business in the inaugural Sun Belt tournament in Huntsville. The Sandy Panthers have a track record of success in the NCAAs and could be a bracket buster. They went 14-0 in matches over four duals, including a 3-0 victory over Coastal Carolina (25-13) for the title.
Finally, top seed UT-Martin booked a spot in the NCAA play-in game on Wednesday after three 3-0 victories on home sand in the Ohio Valley tourney. The Skyhawks defeated third-seeded Morehead State (14-13) in the title dual and the semifinal.