It was listed simply as a first-round game in the National Invitation Tournament, but Alcorn State against Mississippi State Thursday night was much more than that.

"It's like when the man walked on the moon," said Alcorn guard Ronnie Smith after his team's dramatic 80-78 victory.

"It's one small step for Alcorn, and one giant step for all black colleges."

The most stunning part of the game was not the last-second, buzzer-beating shot by Alcorn's stringbean forward, Larry Smith, but that there was such a game at all.

Thursday night's contest before a sellout crowd in Mississippi State's Humphrey Coliseum marked the first time a predominantly white major university (Mississippi State) had played a predominantly black university within the state.

The NIT does not deserve all the credit for breaking down the barrier. Alcorn, a small well-hidden school in southwestern Mississippi (Lorman), has grown in stature with an unbeaten season that now stands at 28-0.

However, Thursday night's victory over Mississippi State meant much more to the Southwestern Athletic Conference-champion Braves than their previous 27 victories this season.

Those other wins came against the likes of Bishop College and too many other pawns to impress the voters in college basketball's weekly polls.

Mississippi State, however, is a respected member of the Southeastern Conference. The Bulldogs finished the season at 19-9.

"This is the most important game in any sport that Alcorn has ever played," Alcorn Coach Dave Whitney said before the game. "They've denied us all these years. We've been overlooked this season, too, despite our record.

"This was a big game in a sense that it may open a lot of doors for a whole lot of black colleges in the South. By proving we can play a good, solid game against a big-college school, it's going to give other schools that nobody knows about a chance.

"There's another aspect of it. Mississippi has had such bad publicity. This is a mirror game. That's growth for the state of Mississippi -- growth in the eyes of the people in the nation. It's got to have a positive effect. Something for black and white people to be proud of."

For the first 10 minutes of the game, Alcorn appeared to be taking a giant step backward against a State team that has only one white starter.

Using their better strength inside, the Bulldogs jumped out to a 26-10 lead. Their front line of Rickey Brown, Wiley Peck and Ray White scored 20 of those 26 points and dominated the boards against Alcorn's tall but thin players.

Then, Whitney called time, brought three players off the bench and went to a full-court press.

Sharpshooting by Joe Jenkins and a pressing defense enabled Alcorn to cut the lead to six points at halftime.

Regaining its composure in the second half, State built up a 10-point lead, 73-63, with four minutes to play. However, Alcorn outscored the Bulldogs, 17-5, down the stretch and won the most important game in its history on Smith's basket at the buzzer.

Ten thousand tickets were sold for the game in only six hours, the fastest sellout in Mississippi State history. Some 3,500 of those tickets were purchased by Alcorn fans, many of whom raced onto the court following Smith's dramatic shot for a giddy victory celebration.