After North Carolina State held the ball for the final four minutes waiting for a good shot, Dereck Whittenburg missed a 25-footer with three seconds left that allowed No. 1-ranked Virginia to escape Reynolds Coliseum with a 39-36 Atlantic Coast Conference victory tonight.

Cavalier center Ralph Sampson was fouled on the rebound and made two free throws to end the slow-paced game.

Craig Robinson gave the Cavaliers (23-1, 8-1 in the ACC) the lead, 37-36, with 4:28 to play when State's 7-foot-5 center, Chuck Nevitt, was called for goaltending and his fifth foul. Robinson missed the free throw and the rebound went to Wolfpack forward Scott Parzych.

Former De Matha stars Whittenburg and Sidney Lowe played catch until only 17 seconds were left, then Coach Jim Valvano called timeout.

Lowe passed to Whittenburg with 10 seconds left, and he took a couple of steps toward the top of the key. Whittenburg had made two consecutive shots from that spot, the last of which had given State a 36-35 lead with 5:20 to play.

Whittenburg jumped above Cavalier guard Othell Wilson and let fly with the shot. But this time the ball bounced off the front rim and into the hands of the 7-4 Sampson, who went high over everyone for the rebound.

Sampson was fouled and his free throws assured victory after he was held to a team-high 11 points by a bruising Wolfpack double-teaming. He had missed his first three free throws.

"I thought that was a hell of a shot for a kid who had just hit two from the same area," Valvano said of Whittenburg's shot. "Sure, I would have liked a layup. But you think Ralph Sampson is gonna let us have a layup? It was a good shot, it just didn't go."

Whittenburg, a 6-1 junior who can jump with almost anyone smaller than 6-8, said he was fairly satisfied with his shot. "I would have liked to get a step or two closer, but I couldn't see the clock and I wanted to get something off," he said. "That would be a little far for someone who isn't used to taking that shot, but I've been shooting that shot for about 50 percent this year."

Whittenburg's shot wasn't questioned as much as Valvano's strategy of playing the last four minutes, at home, without taking the action to Virginia. Even Whittenburg said, "It might have been better to just go on a play."

"After the rebound, we didn't go into the final 4:28 with the idea of playing for the last shot," Valvano said, defending his strategy. "We wanted to hold the ball and see what they'd do. If Virginia decided to pressure us, we would react. But once they permitted us to hold it, we decided to hold it for one shot."

When State called the last timeout, Virginia Coach Terry Holland told his players to guard Whittenburg (12 points) outside and Thurl Bailey (12 points) inside and keep everybody off the boards.

Before that, Holland said, he felt helpless with State holding the ball. "We considered a zone trap, but that was too big a risk as time went on. Our team doesn't like to play this way, and we tried to play faster. But once we got into foul trouble, there wasn't anything we could do."

Holland also said that State defensed Sampson as effectively as any team has this season. The Wolfpack had Nevitt or 6-11 Cozell McQueen behind Sampson at all times and the 6-7 Parzych or McQueen in front of him. With Virginia shooting badly from the perimeter--it made but 38 percent of its shot--State had no reason to loosen its sagging defense.

"It may have been a slower game," said Bailey, from Bladensburg High, "but we also playd very well defensively. Not many teams in the nation can hold Ralph Sampson to 11 points, no matter what the tempo."