Tennessee State won 20 games for the first time since 1978-79, beat a Southeastern Conference opponent for the first time in team history and handed Murray State its lone loss so far this season.
The NCAA tournament drought will almost surely continue for yet another year.
The Tigers went scoreless in the final 3:45 and No. 12 Murray State pulled out a 54-52 win Saturday in the Ohio Valley Conference tournament championship.
Tennessee State (20-12) was looking for its third NCAA tournament berth and first since 1994, when the Tigers beat Murray State in this game for a second straight year. Tennessee State outshot and outrebounded the Racers but couldn't score with a chance to win.
Still, it's been an incredible turnaround in coach John Cooper's third season for a program that went 9-23 in his first year.
"Not the end of the world," Cooper said. "That's just part of life, as I told them. One of the things I think is important is in defeat, how do you handle it? When you win, you celebrate. When you lose you congratulate, and that's what you do."
Jewuan Long drove the baseline for a floater with 4.4 seconds left and Murray State (30-1) rallied from seven points down in the final 5:28 to earn an automatic bid to the NCAA tournament.
The Racers considered this comeback just a final tuneup for the NCAAs, their first trip back since finishing the 2010 season 31-5 and beating Vanderbilt in the first round. Senior guard Donte Poole said the finish shows just how focused the Racers are.
"Down the stretch, we were down. We just tried to put a number of stops together to give ourselves the best chance to come down and get a shot," Poole said.
The final shot didn't go off as planned. Isaiah Canaan was supposed to take it, but the Tigers smothered him so he passed off to Long for a floater. Cooper thought M.J. Rhett got his feet set to draw a charge on Long, but no call was made.
Long finished with six points.
"I've got a lot of confidence in him," Murray State coach Steve Prohm said. "He hadn't made a lot of shots all night, but that's his shot. You ask any of these guys. ... His shot's the floater."
Canaan then stripped Tigers guard Patrick Miller of the ball driving to the basket and Long guarded Robert Covington on his 3-pointer at the buzzer to preserve the win, helping the Racers avoid a second loss to the only team that beat them this season.
Covington said he could've taken a better shot but didn't realize where he was at the time.
"I seen it fade left and after that, I mean, just put my head down," he said.
Prohm said the finish shows just how resilient his Racers are, and he congratulated the Tigers.
"They had a great game plan today," Prohm said. "Slow you down in the offensive end. They really made it tough on us on the offensive end, and they made us work for everything."
Covington led Tennessee State with 14 points, and Kellen Thornton had 11.
Canaan and Poole each scored 14 for the Racers.
The game featured 10 ties and 11 lead changes. Murray State led 29-27 at halftime, then came out and looked early as if it was trying to help the OVC put two teams into the NCAA tournament.
Most of the fans at Municipal Auditorium were dressed in Murray State blue and yellow, but the Racers were sloppy as they started the second half by missing their first six shots.
They didn't hit their first field goal until 14:27 was left on a 3 by Long. That was part of a 12-2 run as the Racers rallied from a 38-31 deficit, and Zay Jackson's layup put Murray State up 43-40 with 8:28 left. Tennessee State answered with 10 straight points to go back up 50-43 on Rhett's jumper with 5:28 left.
That set up a furious finish.
Tennessee State led 52-48 when Rhett dunked with 3:46 left for its final bucket. Ivan Aska answered, then Ed Daniel hit two free throws with 1:01 left for his only points of the game, tying the score.
Miller had another turnover with 30 seconds left for Tennessee State. That allowed the Racers to run out most of the rest of the clock before Canaan found Long in the left corner.
Cooper said Miller was his best driver, while Covington was his best jump shooter.
"We come up 0 for 2. We'll live with that," Cooper said.
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