March 19, 2015

(AP) - Northwestern hadn't had 20-plus wins since 1995-96 and no national ranking since that season until now.

That success has the 22nd-ranked Wildcats in their first NCAA Tournament since 1997.

Seventh-seeded Northwestern will get underway Friday in the Oklahoma City Regional at Waco, Texas, when it takes on No. 10 seed Arkansas from the SEC with first-year coach Jimmy Dykes.

Northwestern (23-8) has finally returned to the NCAA Tournament, seven years after hiring coach Joe McKeown. McKeown went to the tournament 15 times in 19 seasons at George Washington, with 13 first-round wins, after two NCAA appearances in three seasons at New Mexico State.

''I was coming off 17 NCAA tournaments, and I've learned you can't take anything for granted,'' McKeown said. ''To be back now is awesome, and I think for our program, these guys are really mature from the standpoint of they understand they've built so many bricks right now, and they've paid a lot of dues, but you also have this opportunity that you don't know you're going to have again. I think we have a great awareness right now.''

Sophomore forward Nia Coffey has starred for the Wildcats all season, averaging team highs of 15.9 points and 8.7 rebounds. Junior guard Maggie Lyon adds 13.9 points and 5.1 boards per game.

When Arkansas (17-13) got its first NCAA berth in three seasons, Dykes talked to his players ''to make sure that there wasn't one ounce of we're just happy to be in the tournament inside of us.''

Senior guard Calli Berna said the Lady Razorbacks want to appreciate that they are in the tournament, ''but we also know it's time for business.''

Arkansas' 13 losses are among the most in the 64-team field, but the selection committee took into consideration its 10 games against Top 25 teams. That tied for seventh-most in the nation, with the Lady Razorbacks going 2-8.

"I'm so excited for our players, staff and fans," Dykes told the school's official website. "The NCAA Tournament is the goal of every program, and for us to achieve that in our first season together is very rewarding.

"The opportunity to play more games together and continue to learn and grow as a team is critical as we build the foundation of what we expect will be a nationally competitive program for years to come."

Arkansas is led by sophomore forward Jessica Jackson, a second-team all-SEC selection that's averaging 14.9 points and 6.2 rebounds.

Northwestern has come back from double-digit deficits in four of its last six wins. All of those games were away from home, three on the road, and then in the Big Ten tournament.

The Lady Razorbacks, meanwhile, have lost three games at the buzzer this season.

"Arkansas is a great team. They have had a great season so far. I think we are just trying to focus on our game plan," Lyon said. "I think our coaches are doing a great job of that. We just want to kind of play our game the way we have been doing all season."

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