They stood there, arms locked, tears in their eyes. For Thurl Bailey, Dereck Whittenburg and Sidney Lowe, there could be no sweeter feeling than to stand together in the midst of the tumult on the court at the Omni today and enjoy the moment.

The three seniors from the Washington, D.C., area were the reason N.C. State survived three straight games that easily could have been lost. They scored the points--158 of the 243 their team scored--they got most of the assists and most of the rebounds. They were primarily responsible for victories over Wake Forest, North Carolina and then today, Virginia, 81-78.

"They knew this was the last time for them, their careers have been so up and down, they were going to play every one right to the buzzer," said Coach Jim Valvano. "They were mentally tough when we needed it most. They never backed off a step."

The broken foot that Whittenburg suffered in the season's 10th game, which appeared to end his season, may have made this team better.

Younger players such as Lorenzo Charles and Ernie Myers matured because they had to. And Lowe, throughout his career a man who rarely looked at the basket, began shooting more. When Whittenburg came back six games ago, also against Virginia, N.C. State had offensive dimensions it had not had before.

"Before Whitt got hurt, I just played my role and tried to set things up for the other guys," said Lowe, who has played with Whittenburg since their days at De Matha High School. "When he went out, I had to do more, look to shoot more."

The Wolfpack came into the tournament hoping that one victory would sneak them into the NCAA Tournament. When they beat North Carolina Saturday, they knew they were in. Today, most thought, Virginia and Ralph Sampson would finally win an ACC title and the Wolfpack would be satisfied losers, having gotten what they came for--the bid.

Lowe's shooting against North Carolina kept N.C. State alive until Whittenburg scored 11 points to win it in the overtime. Today, the scorer was Bailey, from Bladensburg High. Whenever Virginia extended its defense to cut off the two little men (Lowe had 18 points, Whittenburg 15) there was Bailey making 24 points, shooting a variety of turnaround jumpers, short hooks and twice, three-point shots. The last one put N.C. State ahead to stay, 67-65, with 7:02 to play.

"We just kept telling ourselves to take good shots every time down, be patient," Bailey said. "We were a little tired, but . . . the adrenaline was really pumping."

Perhaps that was the difference. When the game was at stake, Sampson became the first 7-foot-4 person to disappear in view of 16,723 people..

"When you've got these two guys with you, you know good things will happen," Bailey said. "Whenever it got tough, Whitt or Sidney were always there, saying, 'Don't worry, don't worry; we'll get it done.' "

When it was over, Whittenburg embraced his two buddies. "What did I tell you guys; what did I tell you?" he yelled.

"I told them, even back in January, 'keep dreaming,' " Whittenburg said.