Is North Carolina just as strong even without injured center Tom LaGarde?

Louisville, which was overrun, 96-89, by Carolina's blue tornado today, must think so. But don't tell that to Tar Heel coach Dean Smith.

"Heavens, our best performance this year was against Maryland in Chapel Hill with Tommy LaGarde at center," Smith said. "Maybe no one but the team and myself realize what he means to us. We need him."

But Smith said it was "extremely doubtful" LaGarde would be able to play in the ACC tournament, which begins Thursday in Greensboro. LaGarde's injured knee will be examined Tuesday, just in case it has healed. But SMith indicated he was more optimistic that "Tommy could play if we go to the NCAA tournament."

It would be difficult for even LaGarde to improve his team's performances over the last week. The Tar Heels won three games, all easily, and were especially impressive against two quick and talented opponents, North Carlina State and Louisville. Carolina now has won all six games since LaGarde was injured.

Considering that Smith is alternating three inexperienced freshman centers, the Tar Heels are playing much better than expected without LaGarde. They were overwhelming to day.

Imagine how Louisville coach Denny Crum feels. His team scored 89 points and shot 63 per cent (including a sensational 69 per cent in the second half). But he admitted afterward the Cardinals were dead and buried at halftime."

At intermission, North Carolina led, 57-38, after playing just short of perfect basketball. "It was our best half of the season," said Smith. "We were amazingly sharp. I felt we'd play either very well or very poorly, considering we played yesterday in an emotional game."

Carolina built its overwhelming margin by beating the Cardinals at their own run-and-gun game. Louisville was unable to combat the Tar Heel's offensive rebounding or their fast break and wound up losing its poise as Carolina grew stronger.

"Maybe some of us were nervous and we didn't respond to the pressure of the game," said Crum. "We just didn't recognize what they were doing out there fast enough."

The 10th-ranked Cardinals stayed close until eight minutes were left in the opening half. Then No. 9 Carolina suddenly exploded, widening a 37-33 lead to 55-35 within seven minutes.

Phil Ford, the perpetual-motion guard who never seems to tire, got things rolling with a long jump shot. Then John Kuester hit from the outside and Ford followed with two more short jumpers. A nifty Ford assit to third-string center John Krafcisin put carolina up 47-33.

By then, Crum was sending in substitutes by the wave, but his guards couldn't cope with Carolina's changing defenses or with Ford's tenacity. A Ford steal off Louisville freshman Darrell Griffith that ended in an easy layup finally brought the sellout crowd to its feet and had the Cardinals looking toward the bench for help that never came.

Carolina ultimately ran out of gas after intermission, losing its defensive pressure in the process.

Louisville missed just two shots in the game's final six minutes, mainly because the players taking most of the attempts. Wesley Cox and Ricky Wilson were breaking loose for uncontested layups.

Wilson finished with 30 points and Cox 27. They were matched by Ford and freshman Mike O'Koren, both of whom had 26.

"The fact this was our last game before the tournament was important," said Ford. "We wanted to go in with a win. To beat a team as good as Louisville like we did has to be good for the conference."

How much good did it do for North Carolina? "It was nice," Ford said, "but I'd still like to have Tommy LaGarde in there helping."