Northwestern wins on basketball Hail Mary, gets closer to first-ever tourney bid

Northwestern, preferred school of many sports journalists, is probably — right? — going to the NCAA Tournament for the first time in school history after an incredible finish Wednesday in a 67-65 win over Michigan.

Dererk Pardon took a full-court, Hail Mary-ish pass from Nathan Taphorn with 1.7 seconds to go, shook off two Wolverines defenders and made a game-winning layup at the horn to send the crowd in Evanston into hysterics.

And it was all off-the-cuff:

The win lifts Northwestern to 21-9 on the season and pretty well solidifies their spot in the field of 68, at least in the eyes of many prognosticators. The Wildcats were projected around a 9 or 10 seed in many brackets going into Wednesday and fare well in Ken Pomeroy’s rankings (37th going into Wednesday) and the RPI (50th). And now they’ve added a win over another likely tournament team in Michigan.

Of course, it may not be that simple. A 9 or 10 seed is close to the at-large cutoff on the 11 line, and Northwestern had been trending down lately, losing five of its last seven games before Wednesday. And Northwestern has at least two games left — against Purdue in the regular-season finale and then the Big Ten tournament. Losing to the ranked Boilermakers likely wouldn’t hurt them much in the eyes of the committee, but the Wildcats’ first game in the conference tournament will likely be against one of the bottom teams in the conference. They’d be wise to win that too to be safe.

Still, Wednesday night was an amazing moment for a traditionally dreadful program that has never been to the Big Dance and now seems as close to certain as can be. In a 13-season stretch in the 80’s and 90’s, the Wildcats failed to win 10 games in 12 of them. The program started to show signs of life under Bill Carmody in the late 2000s, making four straight NITs. Current head coach Chris Collins now has them on the brink of the big prize in his fourth season on the job. The team went 20-12 last year, its best record of the modern era, but still failed to make the postseason.

Welcome to March!