Dean Smith was on the offensive, in a sort of verbal four corners. Why, he had been asked, did he order his Carolina Olympians to play so passively so early against a young Maryland team with its best player in foul trouble?

"Is it fair to play a 7-footer?" he said. "Is it fair to use a Phil Ford in what he does best, dribbling, penetrating, finding the open man? Would it be fair for a fine symphony to devote 20 per cent of its concert to a violin solo?

Whatever, Ford and Carolina dribbed off with a 71-68 Cole Field House victory yesterday with about eight minutes of stall-ball that suggests two thoughts: perhaps Carolina is not as Olympian as once believed: perhaps Maryland will mature rapidly after all.

Before the game, no one was quite sure what the Terrapins would offer, whether that awful performance Wednesday against Clemson was something to be dismissed as freakish or as early evidence that they are to be dismissed as an ACC threat this year.

Some numbers the Terrapins produced yesterday suggest they may well be potent for the ACC tournament in early March. Maryland grabbed 10 more rebounds than Carolina scored five more field goals, and Lawrence Boston shot an astonishing 11-for-11 from the field.

The best testimony was not what anyone said, but what Carolina did in the final eight minutes: it played the four-corners offense that frustrates the paying customers as much as the opposition, and Smith rarely rested his regulars, especially Ford and Tommy La Garde.

"I haven't shown that much confidence in our bench most of the season." Smith said, noting that Ford played the entire game and LaGarde rested a total of only two minutes. "And I didn't like what Maryland was doing the second half."

In addition to lacking their usual excellent collection of reserves, the Tar Heels are not nearly as dominant in the front court as a team with serious notions of winning the national championship probably ought to be.

"Walter Davis is a natural guard we have playing at small forward," Smith said. "(Mike) O'Koren is a natural small forward we have playing power forward. And (John) Kuester is a natural point guard we have playing big guard."

What Carolina does have in its favor is a stronger and slightly more ill-tempered LaGarde, the extraordinary Ford and an attitude, fueled by international success, that assumes victory before each game.

"You have to blame coach Smith for that attitude," said Ford, who with LaGarde and Davis played on the U.S. team during the Montreal Olympics. "It means a lot when you go over to the bench in a close game and the coach is calm and confident.

"You go over there and the coach is tearing his hair out and you say, 'Wow, how are we gonna do anything?'"

Still, Carolina showed remarkably human tendencies an hour or so after Maryland's bomb against Clemson, losing to the tender babes of North Carolina State. That was the night Smith opted not to clutch to his security blanket, the four corners.

"I wanted to show we didn't need it," he said.

What Maryland needed in the second half, Driesell hinted, was a rule change.

"I would like to see a 30-second clock," he said. "It might have given us a win."

Suprisingly, Smith also would like to see a shot clock.

"I would be in favor of a 30-second clock," he said. "It does not hurt a good team like ours because of our talent. It would hurt a team that did not have the talent we have."

That talent also includes the smart and smooth freshman O'Koren, whose only hint of tarnish is a reluctance to pass up an open shot from close range. His Carolina attitude became evident on the game's final shot.

Maryland still had a chance for a tie with two seconds left and Carolina up two points with O'Koren on the line for two free throws. He missed his first shot, then looked toward Ford a few feet away and winked. The second shot was perfect.