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Despite last year’s heartbreak, a new Northwestern team lives to tell its NCAA Tournament story

This team may not be the same as last year’s, but it has what it takes to surprise people.

The last year has been anything but easy for Northwestern women’s basketball. The Wildcats have climbed up and been knocked down time and time again. But now, five days away from their first NCAA Tournament game since 2015, all they’ve faced has prepared them for the brightest stage of the game.

They say what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger, and at times this season, it was unclear if that was true for Northwestern. You could see the toll of the cancelation of last year’s tournament. You could see the fatigue this COVID-season has caused. But through it all, NU persevered and got right back to where it began.

The end of December and the start of January were tough for NU, which lost to Nebraska and Michigan back-to-back to end 2020 and begin 2021. The end of January didn’t get any easier, as the Wildcats lost starting forward/center Courtney Shaw for a month and a half due to injury and played a difficult February without her. Northwestern suffered three losses in February, which knocked it out of the top 25 for the first time in a year and dropped it to sixth place in the Big Ten.

When Northwestern had seemingly run out of gas, March brought a new sense of life. The fifth-seeded Wildcats (Ohio State didn’t compete, serving a postseason ban) cruised through the first two rounds of the Big Ten Tournament, annihilating Illinois and upsetting No. 13 Michigan after falling to the Wolverines twice before this season.

Despite getting dominated by top-seeded Maryland in the semis, the Wildcats showed heart in Indianapolis and flashed their ability — when healthy, rested and poised — to beat a top team.

For the last few months, the lasting message around the program has been that this team wants to recapture the magic it had last season. The magic that earned it a share of the Big Ten title for the first time in 30 years. The magic that earned it a 26-4 record — the best in school history. The magic that earned it a two-seed in the Big Ten Tournament. The magic that would have earned it a top-four seed in the NCAA Tournament.

But it’s time we stop trying to compare teams. While last year’s team had so many incredible accomplishments, this year’s team has told its own story, that of the underdog.

It graduated two starters, including one of the nation’s best three-point shooters, but relied on an impressive backcourt and still found ways to stifle opponents. It lost games to teams it would’ve handled last year, but it showed resiliency to defeat some of the best squads in the Big Ten. It faced numerous injuries, sidelining players for months or even the whole season, but younger role players stepped up when they were needed most. Through it all, Northwestern persevered. The Wildcats are gritty, angry and unsatisfied. That dissatisfaction and desire to achieve what was stripped from them could be just enough to propel them deep into March.

These Wildcats may not have a clear road to the Sweet 16, but as a seven-seed, they have a real shot at earning their first NCAA Tournament win under Joe McKeown. There, they would likely face two-seed Louisville, a beatable team despite its high ranking. Get past the Cardinals, and they may have enough momentum to not only recreate pre-pandemic magic but surpass it.

Northwestern hasn’t made things look easy this year. Heck, nothing will come easily in San Antonio. But this team wants it bad, and in March you can discount much of the regular season. Just one victory could be enough to grease the wheels for NU to find itself basking in the glory that no one thought it would achieve.