North Carolina State believed it could, even if nobody else did. It wasn't just rhetoric: Sidney Lowe could control the pace, Dereck Whittenburg could shoot jumpers over anybody and State's long-distance shots would count just as much as Houston's dunks.

So when Lorenzo Charles slammed Whittenburg's 32-foot air ball to kingdom come with one second remaining tonight, it was North Carolina State that had the last laugh, and the last jama.

That basket, at the end of a broken play, gave North Carolina State a 54-52 NCAA championship victory over heavily favored Houston before 17,327 in delirious University Arena. It was the only basket State scored from within 15 feet the second half.

"I could see it," Charles said. "I was under the rim, where you can always see whether the ball is long or short. And I knew it was short. I could see it so clear. The closest Houston player to me was Akeem (Abdul) Olajuwon. He was right there, but he didn't jump. I don't know why. It feels good to beat them with a jama, but to tell you the truth, it feels good to beat them any way you can."

State Coach Jim Valvano had called time with 44 seconds left and the score tied. After Benny Anders barely missed a steal with less than 10 seconds left, Whittenburg spun around and shot an air ball from beyond the top of the key, but Charles was under the basket for the easy dunk.

Whittenburg, the senior guard from De Matha High School in Hyattsville, Md., ran around screaming, "Great pass. Great pass."

It was impossible not to be hit by the irony. "Here they are all season, bragging about their dunks, calling themselves Phi Slama Jama, and they get one slama in the middle of the game, and we get one jama at the end." said N.C. State's Alvin Battle. "It's real ironic, isn't it?"

N.C. State became the first team to win the national championship with double-digit losses; Indiana had lost nine in winning the 1981 title. It was also the second straight year an Atlantic Coast Conference team won the title (North Carolina beat Georgetown in the 1982 final). State (26-10) won this title nine years ago, but was favored by almost no one to come close to a top-ranked Houston team that had won 26 straight with a running, flying, dunking attack.

There was little flying or dunking tonight for the Cougars (31-3), who were held to their lowest point total of the season. Houston's only dunk was a tip-slam by Olajuwon with five minutes left in the first half. Led by 6-11 senior forward Thurl Bailey of Bladensburg, Md., who scored all of his team-high 15 points in the first 20 minutes, the Wolfpack ignored that and went on to a 33-25 lead at intermission.

The Cougars scored the first 10 points of the second half. They went on a 17-2 run to take a 44-37 lead with eight minutes left before N.C. State gathered itself for the final run, aided in part by Houston's decision to go to a delay offense.

"So many times, we've been down 12 points, 10 points, eight points to teams like Virginia and Maryland and North Carolina, that trailing this time didn't make us panic," said State's Terry Gannon. "We just said if we get behind, we'll foul them the rest of the game."

Houston, shooting 61.1 percent from the foul line, had to expect that strategy, but couldn't do a thing about it. The Cougars made only 10 of 19 free throws tonight.

Clyde Drexler made two free throws with 3:19 remaining that put the Cougars ahead, 52-46. But Lowe, the other senior guard from De Matha, made a 24-footer for 52-48.

Houston's Michael Young then missed the front end of a one-and-one situation with 2:52 that gave the Wolfpack life, and the ball.

Whittenburg, who had 14 points but made only six of 17 from the field, made a 20-footer from the right side with 2:22 left for 52-50. Olajuwon missed his eighth shot in 15 attempts--an eight-footer from the left base line. Whittenburg pulled up for another 20-footer, this one from the right side, arching it just over the gargantuan arms of Olajuwon, a 7-footer. That tied the game at 52 with 1:57 left and set up some expected strategy.

Whittenburg fouled Alvin Franklin with 1:05 left. A 63.6 percent foul shooter, Franklin missed the front of the one-and-one so badly that three State players nearly lost the ball out of bounds trying to grab the rebound. But Cozell McQueen (12 rebounds) controlled the ball.

Houston Coach Guy Lewis was fighting mad in his postgame interview. "Everybody's been predicting all season that we couldn't win the NCAA title if we didn't hit our free throws. And that's exactly what happened. If we hit those two free throws at the end, we win."

Instead, State got the ball and called time with 44 seconds left. The Wolfpack botched the 32-red play designed for Whittenburg by passing the ball in the corner to Bailey.

"It was helter-skelter at that moment because the ball wasn't supposed to go into the corner," said Gannon. "But Thurl kept his cool and tossed it back out."

Whittenburg missed his shot, but Charles went up alone to grab the ball with both hands and ram it down. It was Charles who had given State a 4-0 lead, only to spend the rest of the game intimidated by Olajuwon, who blocked seven shots.

"It's hard to believe we won on a second-shot dunk when that's Houston's game," said Gannon.

Where was Olajuwon on the play? "I don't know where he was, to tell you the truth," Lewis said. "In the last timeout I told him, 'Don't leave that bucket. Stay there, and if they miss, grab the rebound.' "

Olajuwon, who had a game-high 20 points and a game-high 18 rebounds to earn the tournament MVP award, fell on the floor in agony when Charles' shot went in. He ran from the locker room, screaming, "Where's the bus . . . where's the bus?" Several Houston officials tried to calm him down, but Olajuwon ran out of the door onto the bus.

And inside the warmth of a building they call The Pit, Coach Jim Valvano--whose team did just what he had said it would do--was realizing he was now the coach of a national champion.

"When my wife has the baby, I'm going to name it Al B. Querque," Valvano said.