The legend of Popeye Jones, already burned into basketball lore of the Ohio Valley Conference, was a hook shot away from breaking out big-time when he turned and fired from the baseline with 26 seconds left in overtime.
Jones had already carried little Murray State this far--a regulation tie with No. 4-ranked Michigan State--but now the Racers trailed by two and needed another rescue.
So Popeye popped again.
This time, though, the basketball didn't cooperate.
This time, Jones, who scored 37 points in a scintillating full-court performance, missed.
The hook was off, and Michigan State was off the hook. The Spartans, seeded first in the NCAA Southeast Regional, held off 16th-seeded Murray State, 75-71,Thursday night and slipped into Saturday's second round against UC Santa Barbara.
"We got a reprieve," said a drained Jud Heathcote, Michigan State's coach. "I'm still trying to figure out if we won or if we lost."
Michigan State (27-5) struggled throughout but nearly won the game in regulation, leading, 65-62, in the final seconds.
But Murray State guard Greg Coble, squirming free from the defensive pursuit of Matt Steigenga, swished an off-balance three-point shot at the buzzer to send the game into overtime.
There, Murray State (21-9) took a 68-67 lead on a jumper by Jones and was tied, 71-71, with less than a minute to play before Spartan guard Kirk Manns spun wildly through the lane and tossed up a reverse layup that went in.
"It's called 'HORSE,' " Heathcote quipped. "You take it inside, blindly throw the ball up with a little spin on it and when it goes in, you tell the next guy, 'Your shot.' "
The Racers had one last chance to tie, but after Jones misfired, Michigan State turned the rebound into a breakaway basket to put the game out of reach.
Jones, a 6-foot-8 sophomore center, scored from an eye-popping array of locations--inside, outside, even three connections from three-point range. The Ohio Valley Conference player of the year, Jones took half of Murray State's 72 shots, sinking 15 of 36 attempts, while adding a team-high 11 rebounds. His 37 points were a career high.
OK, now to the obvious question:
Ronald Jones got the nickname from his brother David, who was watching the cartoon when his mother brought the new-born infant home from the hospital and noticed that baby Ronnie had the same funny ears as that sailor guy on TV.
The name stuck and, after Thursday's game, it might start to spread.
"I don't know if it's going to (Dwayne) Stephens or (Mike) Peplowski or Steigenga," said Heathcote, listing a few of his players, "but we're going to nickname someone Popeye. That seems to be all it takes."
Steve Smith led Michigan State with 22 points, followed by Manns with 21 and Stephens with 12. Frank Allen added 14 points for Murray State.
In other first-round games:
Louisiana State 70, Villanova 63--Villanova's second half wasn't half bad, but its first half was horrendous, and the Wildcats were never able to recover.
Villanova (18-15) shot 25.9% from the field, missed its six three-point attempts and turned the ball over nine times in the first 20 minutes. Remarkably, the Wildcats trailed by only nine, 32-23, at the half.
In the second, Villanova pulled to within five points, 65-60, in the final minute, but never had a real chance of catching the 23-8 Tigers.
LSU, seeded fifth in the Southeast, had Villanova badly overmatched, but the Tigers start three sophomores and two freshmen and their inexperience showed in the second half. LSU committed 26 turnovers, half of them by sophomore guard Maurice Williamson.
Williamson and his All-American backcourt mate, sophomore Chris Jackson, led the Tigers with 16 points apiece. Guard Chris Walker was Villanova's top scorer with 20 points, including six three-point shots.
Georgia Tech 99, East Tennessee State 83--The fourth-seeded Yellow Jackets (25-6) opened a 21-8 lead, built it to 49-24 by halftime and eased into Saturday's second round against LSU.
Georgia Tech shot 66.7% in the first half and 60.9% for the game, with Dennis Scott hitting 14 of 22 attempts and Kenny Anderson eight of 11. Scott finished with 36 points, Anderson with 21.
East Tennessee State (27-7) received 17 points apiece from Calvin Talford and Keith Jennings and 16 from Greg Dennis.