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Northwestern headed to NCAA tournament for first time

Northwestern University Men's Basketball Head Coach Chris Collins celebrates with players after learning the Wildcats are heading to the NCAA Tournament during a watch party for the Selection Show at Welsh-Ryan Arena in Evanston, Sunday night, March 12, 2017. | Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times

There was a point after last season when guard Bryant McIntosh questioned whether he and his Northwestern teammates would reach the NCAA tournament. The Wildcats had gone 20-12 but weren’t anywhere near the bubble.

McIntosh said he never regretted his decision to play at the school, but some doubts were creeping in about what he and the program would be able to accomplish.

‘‘Just questioned and wondered [whether] I could be a part of something that’s never been done,’’ McIntosh said Sunday. ‘‘You kind of question yourself when things don’t go the way you thought they might.’’

Now McIntosh officially has become a part of something that never had been done.

Ending 78 years of waiting, NU finally will make its NCAA tournament debut Thursday against Vanderbilt in Salt Lake City after getting the No. 8 seed in the West Regional.

The Wildcats (23-11), who had a winning record in Big Ten play for the first time since 1968, finished in a three-way tie for fifth place in the conference during the regular season and advanced to the semifinals of the Big Ten tournament for the first time.

NU learned its fate during a raucous watch party with its fans at under-construction Welsh-Ryan Arena. It was a party that sometimes looked inevitable and sometimes looked doubtful during a season that covered a spectrum of emotions.

The Wildcats and their fans even had to wait until the final regional was unveiled, adding a few more minutes to the wait.

‘‘It seemed really hot in that building for those 45 minutes,’’ coach Chris Collins said.

‘‘It was excruciating,’’ forward Vic Law said.

But when CBS host Greg Gumbel announced NU had made it, all the tension was released. The noise made it hard for people to hear Gumbel reveal the Wildcats’ foe in their first March Madness game.

It was a moment almost eight decades in the making, and NU wasn’t shy about celebrating.

‘‘It was just awe-inspiring to finally see our name be put up there [and] Gumbel to say, ‘In purple, the Northwestern Wildcats,’ ’’ Law said. ‘‘To be honest, after he said ‘Northwestern,’ I don’t really think I heard anything else he said. I think we were all jumping around and going crazy. It was just surreal.’’

Instead of carrying the stigma of being the lone school from a power conference never to play in the tournament, the Wildcats will begin preparing for Vanderbilt. Collins said he thinks his players will be able to refocus and recharge after Sunday.

It’s a new challenge for NU and one Collins clearly embraces. He acknowledged what making the tournament means to the program.

‘‘This is a great day for our program,’’ Collins said in a speech to the fans. ‘‘This is a great day for our school. To me, though, this isn’t the ending. To me, today is the beginning of Northwestern basketball. Today is the day we put ourselves on the national map, and that’s where we plan to stay.’’

Follow me on Twitter @BrianSandalow.