At last, North Carolina State's Sidney Lowe, Dereck Whittenburg and Thurl Bailey--Washington-area all-Metropolitan players four years ago--have given the folks back home something to cheer about.
"We couldn't get that loose ball or that rebound or make that free throw when it counted," said Whittenburg, who is 6 feet 1 but jumps as if he were 6-6. "We never seemed to get a break. This year, we finally got some breaks and won a big one for our people in old D.C."
Last Sunday, there couldn't have been more excitement in the city of Raleigh than in at least three homes in Northeast Washington, Landover and Bladensburg, where Lowe, Whittenburg and Bailey grew up.
The three played extremely well last week to lead N.C. State (20-10) to victories over Wake Forest (71-70), North Carolina (91-84, in OT) and Virginia (81-78) to win its first ACC tournament since 1974.
"We waited four years but it was worth it," said Lowe, who with Whittenburg starred at De Matha for three years. "We had the talent all along to win the tough games but something always stopped us. People doubted us at times but we never doubted ourselves. Being from the same area was always our confidence booster. We could relate to things and it kept us loose. We always felt we were playing for the people back home. I know we finally gave them something to talk about."
Going into tonight's first-round NCAA playoff game against Pepperdine in Corvallis, Ore., Lowe and Bailey were playing the finest basketball of their careers and Whittenburg has been on a tear since returning to the lineup six games ago. The 6-1 guard made seven of nine three-pointers en route to a 27-point performance against Virginia two months ago before breaking a bone in his foot seconds before the first half ended.
"When Whitt went out, Sid and I felt we had to do more for the team," said the 6-11 Bailey, who played at Bladensburg High School. "The points had to come from somewhere. I guess I became the designated shooter."
Bailey had 66 points and 27 rebounds in the ACC tournament and is the Wolfpack's leading scorer (16.7) and rebounder (7.8) for the third straight season. Bailey, who many think will be a first-round NBA draft pick, also had a school-record 83 blocked shots.
Lowe, the only player on the team not allowed to get tired, is enjoying his best scoring season (12.2). He also has attained single-season school records in steals (78) and assists (226). In his career, Lowe has 717 assists and needs 36 assists to surpass Phil Ford (UNC) as the all-time ACC leader in that category.
"The coach has always been after me to shoot more," said Lowe, who had 55 points and 17 assists and was voted MVP of the ACC tournament. "I never worried about shooting much. Maybe I was a little too unselfish. But I'm shooting more now and I'm comfortable doing it."
Jim Valvano, who became head coach at State three years ago, said Lowe tried to come out for a breather in a game against West Virginia three years ago.
"I told him to stay out there," Valvano said. "He (Lowe) couldn't believe it. I told him the only time he comes off the court is when his eligibility runs out. Sidney passes the ball and runs an offense better than anyone in the country. You define point guard in the dictionary and I'd use the synonym Sidney Lowe."
Lowe, who learned his unselfish act at Ludlow-Taylor elementary school in Northeast Washington under Fletcher Tinsley, said he was a "young brainy act who liked the violin" until Tinsley discovered his affinity for dribbling and passing a basketball.
"Mr. Tinsley convinced me to put up my violin," Lowe said, "and try something else."
Lowe, Whittenburg and Bailey are hoping this year's NCAA trip will last longer than last season. State didn't play well in its first-round game against Tennessee-Chattanooga and was eliminated, 58-51.
"Quick trip," recalled Lowe, who had 21 points, eight rebounds and nine assists in the loss. "This year, we plan to stay a little longer."
"We're on a roll right now," Bailey said.
Even though there will be no three-point shots for Whittenburg to take in the NCAA tournament, he believes he and the Wolfpack will have to be reckoned with.
"And it doesn't matter who we play," Lowe said. "We may give our folks something else to cheer about."