Instead, the Spartans came up with a key defensive stop in the final seconds that preserved a 73-70 victory on Saturday for their first Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference championship and first NCAA tournament berth.
The fourth-seeded Wildcats (18-17) cut a 14-point deficit to three and had one last chance to force overtime after tournament most outstanding player Kyle O'Quinn was whistled for traveling with 16.9 seconds left.
Coach Gravelle Craig wanted a screen to generate a clean look for Kevin Dukes, who already had hit four 3-pointers.
"It's hard to guard if you don't know it's coming," Craig said. "They [saw] it and they jumped it. They weren't going to let our best 3-point shooter get a 3-point shot."
After that fell apart, Bethune-Cookman had trouble organizing and Garrius Holloman hoisted a straightaway 3-pointer with 5 seconds left that bounced off the rim.
"Toward the end [of the shot], I knew it wasn't going in," Holloman said.
Ricky Johnson put up a 3 through contact at the buzzer, but when it missed, the Spartans spilled onto the court in celebration.
"We were trying to make somebody else make a play," Norfolk State coach Anthony Evans said.
Dukes finished with 18 points and Javoris Bryant added 15 points for Bethune-Cookman, which pulled within three on Holloman's basket with 19.7 seconds left.
O'Quinn scored 18 points and Pendarvis Williams had 17 for the second-seeded Spartans (25-9), who shot nearly 44 percent. Rob Johnson - a former Marist player who's one of five Division I transfers in the rotation - scored 15 points to help Norfolk State win its seventh straight.
Now, after winning their first postseason tournament in 15 years at this level, the Spartans are ready for their shot at a much bigger one. They lost their only other previous appearance in the title game to Morgan State in 2009.
They entered this one with an unofficial RPI ranking of 132 and a schedule-strength rating of 308th that's mostly a consequence of playing in one of the weakest conferences in Division I, though they did beat Drexel -- by most accounts, a bubble team -- by five points in November.
"We're going in with the confidence that we can win it. We can win it all," O'Quinn said. "Not going in just going, `We won the MEAC and let's just experience it.' We've got to go in with that focus. If we're in it, we might as well try to win it."
They won their previous two MEAC tournament games by at least 10 points apiece, and looked as if they were going to make it three straight double-figure wins when Rob Johnson's jumper with 8 1/2 minutes left made it 52-38.
O'Quinn - the league's regular-season MVP who also was selected the most outstanding player at the tournament - was 6 of 12 from the field and hit all six of his free throws.
"I take those because they have my name on them," O'Quinn said. "But I give them right back to my teammates."
The problem was, they were just 2 of 4 from the line in the final minute to give the Wildcats one final chance.
Adrien Coleman had 14 points, Holloman added 12 and Johnson finished with 10 for Bethune-Cookman, which was playing in a league championship game for the first time as a Division I member.
"Norfolk's been here before," Craig said, "and we were a little deer-in-the-headlights early."
The Wildcats overcame a chilly 10 1/2-minute stretch in which they missed 13 of 14 shots, and trailed by 14 with 7 1/2 minutes left before a late 11-3 run got them back in the game. They closed to 59-53 on Holloman's follow-up dunk with 4 1/2 minutes left.
"We were letting them drive to the basket," Evans said. "They were being aggressive, but we weren't cutting them off ... and it was creating havoc for the defense."