INDIANAPOLIS (AP) — Northwestern's agonizing wait went down to the wire.
All those forgettable moments and tantalizing teases over the previous 77 seasons were cast aside Sunday as the Wildcats celebrated their first NCAA Tournament bid when the final section of the bracket was revealed. By earning the No. 8 seed in the West Region, Northwestern will face ninth-seeded Vanderbilt on Thursday in Salt Lake City.
Northwestern ceded the title of having the longest tourney drought among power-five conference schools to Rutgers by becoming one of five first-time entrants in the 68-team field — the most since the field expanded to 40 in 1979.
The immediate reaction inside Welsh-Ryan Arena included fists pumping, fans cheering and band members spilling onto the court. Outside the arena, the celebration included Twitter posts from notable alums including actress Julia Louis-Dreyfus .
"To see all of this, it gets you emotional because these are the things we all dreamed of," coach Chris Collins said. "To see the guys very emotional before we came out, this has meant a lot to them and it's something we put a lot into, and just a really special day. You don't get many chances in life in anything to be a part of something historical, things that have never ever been done."
Before Collins arrived in 2013-14, moments like this one seemed as implausible as the Chicago Cubs winning the World Series.
Now, in a five-month span, both droughts are over thanks largely to men who insisted players believe.
In Collins' case, he instilled such a strong sense of purpose that his players already were donning T-shirts that read "Northwestern" on one line and "March into April" on the other.
"I'm used to being part of all the 'firsts' here. I was Coach Collins' first recruit," sophomore forward Vic Law said. "That belief that we all had — that vision that me and Coach Collins shared — was that this would be different."
Last year, 20 wins were not good enough. This year, the Wildcats (23-11) refused to be kept out. They broke the school record for wins and reached the Big Ten Tournament semifinals for the first time.
Among other first-timers, Northern Kentucky won the Horizon League championship and the league's automatic bid in its first year of eligibility.
The one-time Division II power made the jump to Division I in 2011-12, played three seasons in the Atlantic Sun and shocked the basketball world by playing its way into the tourney just one year after going 9-21. Now they'll play second-seeded Kentucky in Indianapolis on Friday.
"It was incredible to see that," sophomore forward Drew McDonald said after watching the selection show. "Your heart is pounding, but it's a different kind of pounding during the game. It's a dream come true."
Jacksonville State (20-14) wasn't supposed to be here either after going 8-23 last season. The Gamecocks were picked to finish last in the Ohio Valley Conference this season. Somehow, first-year coach Ray Harper led them to the tourney title, a No. 15 seed and a date Friday in Indy against second-seeded Louisville.
"It was special," star player Malcolm Drumwright said, referring to last week's victory celebration. "We were all crying, we were all excited and it was just a fun time."
North Dakota (22-9) might be best known as a hockey school and for its battle with the NCAA to keep its Indian nickname. But that reputation could be changing after the recently renamed Fighting Hawks stormed back from an 11-point, second-half deficit to beat Weber State in overtime for the Big Sky title.
Star player Quinton Hooker recently passed former NBA coach Phil Jackson for fourth on the school's career scoring list and will lead the No. 15 seed in the West Region into a showdown with second-seeded Arizona on Thursday.
"It's going to be a dream come true," Hooker said after being welcomed back to Grand Forks by an estimated 300 fans.
UC Davis (22-12) still has the toughest road.
After rebounding from an 11-19 mark to get the Big West's automatic bid, former Bradley coach Jim Les must beat North Carolina Central in Dayton just to get a chance at knocking off top-seeded Kansas on Friday in Tulsa, Oklahoma.
But nobody in the tourney is happier than the Wildcats.
"It was nerve-wracking because when you saw Wisconsin an 8 seed, we were wondering what our seed was going to be," swingman Scottie Lindsey said. "When we finally got called it was just a huge sigh of relief."
AP Sports Columnist Jim Litke contributed to this report.