Sidney Lowe sank to his knees near the free throw line and held his head in disbelief and frustration.

"So many times," he said later, much happier.

At De Matha High School, Lowe and Dereck Whittenburg were almost always winners in close games against intense rivals. At North Carolina State, they almost always lost to North Carolina. They'd won once during the regular season as freshmen and once during the regular season as seniors. Nothing in between.

"It was getting to be psychological," he said. "We'd press (in important moments), start to worry, because we wanted to win so badly. We were so tight we'd go out there trying not to lose rather than trying to win."

Trying to win in the final 10 seconds of regulation in the ACC tournament semifinals here today, Lowe broke past Jimmy Braddock and down the free throw lane. In almost the same situation against Wake Forest in the first round, Lowe had passed off to Lorenzo Charles for what ultimately became the winning point.

But this was Carolina.

"Felt somebody hackin' at my arms," he said, "and then I guess Sam (Perkins) got a piece of the ball. Shoulda held it a little stronger."

No foul; Carolina's possession with two seconds left; Lowe dropping back onto the floor, bemoaning his--and State's--fate.

This day the basketball gods finally smiled on the Wolfpack in the ACC tournament. Losers to the Tar Heels in the first round two years ago, losers to the Tar Heels in the semis last year, they watched as a 27-footer by Perkins hit inside the back of the rim, inside the front of the rim and then bounced out as the buzzer sounded.

In overtime, it was the Heels who cracked at the foul line.

And Lowe was higher than he'd been in years.

"Can't explain how great it feels," he was saying.

State's winning today was a disappointment for those who wanted Carolina and Virginia to go at each other once more. With a State-Virginia final Sunday, ACC seems to stand for Anti-Climactic Championship. But Lowe and Whittenburg deserve to leave the league in a grand way, win or lose, with the league title on the line.

Whittenburg leaps out of the box scores; Lowe leaps into your heart. Whittenburg scores most of the points, 11 of them in overtime today; Lowe makes so many of them possible.

Incredibly, maybe appropriately, the 6-foot Lowe had twice as many points (26) as the celebrated Michael Jordan--and four more rebounds. For one of the few times in his career, silent Sidney's game screamed for attention. Even nondevotees appreciated Lowe today.

"When Dereck got hurt during the season," he said, "Coach (Jim Valvano) told me to get more involved, to penetrate and then either shoot or dish off to somebody inside. Now that he's back, Coach still didn't want me to change."

In addition to being one of the most animated players on the court, Lowe is one of the peskiest. From being seemingly rooted to the floor, Lowe often springs toward a Perkins and grabs the ball out of his hands. Or somehow hops over the shoulder of a Jordan and causes another turnover. His steal in the final half-minute gave State a chance to beat Wake Friday; his pass later led to Charles' winning foul shot.

"The game we won earlier against Carolina uplifted us," Lowe said. "We knew we could win today (in overtime after losing a five-point lead in the last three minutes of regulation). Whittenburg was something else. Misses so often early; hits everything in OT.

"He came up to me after the last two free throws and said: 'I missed some jumpers, but I sure hit those free throws.' I was so happy for him; he's been through so much this season. Lots of people didn't think he'd be able to play again (after suffering a broken bone in his foot)."

Lowe's emotions hit so many peaks and valleys today. Once he was so angry at no foul being called, after Braddock stole the ball from him, that he whipped a long, softball-pass hard at an official's chest. At the end, he held the ball with both hands high over his head, then tossed it aside.

Carolina gave Lowe the respect he earned with long jumpers and clever drives by switching its best defensive player, Jordan, on him. This made Lowe even more active. If State could get Jordan in foul trouble, or out of the game, its chances of winning increased dramatically.

Jordan fouled out with 3:42 left in regulation.

"We also used some box-and-one defense on him," Lowe said.

In a bind in that box, Carolina's outside shooting was horrid. With Jordan on the bench, it chose the 6-11 Perkins for the final desperation fling. Matt Doherty and Jordan were eight for 23 from the field.

Virginia also has beaten State with Carolina-like regularity lately--and will be heavily favored Sunday. The knee injury that will sideline starter Tim Mullen for the remainder of their games should not hurt the team as much as it might seem.

The taller Jimmy Miller moves off the bench, the more mobile Rick Carlisle slips to small forward more often and the quicker Ricky Stokes gets additional minutes. All that maneuvering seems to make the Cavaliers stronger.

"We're still down on earth," Lowe insisted an hour after beating Carolina. "We'll be ready to give it our all tomorrow. But, hey, we've got to enjoy this awhile."