It was fitting that North Carolina State defeated Virginia tonight in large measure because of a defense that is signaled by the crossing of arms to form an "X."

Because from start to finish, State's 51-45 victory before 12,400 at Reynolds Coliseum this evening was a case of Brand "X" beating Brand "X." There were no first-line products on display here.

Consider: State shot 37 percent from the field in the first half, scored 22 points and was tied at intermission. The Wolfpack had one player in double figures for the night -- Terry Gannon with 10 points. State blocked two shots in 40 minutes -- two more than Virginia.

Yet, in spite of all this mediocrity, the Wolfpack won. In doing so, it raised its Atlantic Coast Conference record to 1-2 and its overall mark to 8-4. Virginia is 0-3, 7-6.

Even worse for the Cavaliers, they lost senior point guard Tim Mullen when he pulled up with back spasms with 9:10 left in the first half. He did not return to the game and the prognosis for his return will not be known until Wednesday morning.

For State, the victory, homely as it was, came at a time when it desperately needed good news. During the game, freshman center Chris Washburn sat next to the bench in street clothes, his basketball future clouded by today's court ruling that he must stand trial on second-degree burglary charges.

"We really didn't talk about Chris before the game tonight because this one was so important to us we just didn't have time for it," Gannon said. "We feel for Chris, but at this stage we just have to go on as if he's not on the team because, at least for now, he's not."

In fact, in the locker room, State Coach Jim Valvano had written on the blackboard: "MUST WIN."

The victory was largely a result of the Wolfpack's pressure defense, a wrinkle Valvano put in after his team's third straight loss, which came Saturday at Kentucky.

"We have a pressure defense where we tried to steal the ball," Valvano said. "This one was more to get a quicker tempo. Virginia does a great job in its half-court offense and we wanted to up-tempo the game if we could. This was certainly something different for us."

State has used a zone defense for most of Valvano's five years here. Tonight, with Virginia leading, 6-2, Valvano gave the "X" signal and the game changed. Virginia could not get any offensive flow. It couldn't decide who should shoot. It looked confused.

State outscored the Cavaliers, 14-3, during the next 6:20. When the Cavaliers finally calmed down, they came back to tie by halftime but State took control early in the second half, starting with a 9-2 run. Virginia never got closer than four points again.

Virginia had trouble with State's size in the second half. It was outrebounded, 29-24, for the game; gave up three three-point plays inside, and twice, trailing by five, failed to get the rebound after misses by the Wolfpack. Instead of having a chance to cut the lead to three, the Cavaliers' deficit grew back to seven.

Actually, neither team looked comfortable tonight. But for State, it was a victory that stopped a slide that began with a loss here to Georgia Tech Dec. 15, continued with Washburn's suspension and worsened with the three defeats.

"It's been Struggle City time," Valvano said. "We needed this one. We've been searching."

For Virginia, the search goes on.