North Carolina overwhelmed Kentucky early with quickness and 72 per cent shooting, then preserved its 79-72 NCAA East Regional championship yesterday with 15 minutes of slowdown basketball and the phenomenal freethrow shooting. And the Tar Heels did it largely without the services of all America guard Phil Ford.

During a stint on the bench, Ford's hyperextended right elbow stiffened so much he could not shoot a free throw during intermission. John Kuestter took over for Ford handling the ball in the Tar Heel four-coner offense and won the most valuable player award at Cole Field House.

Walter Davis, another of Carolina's walking wounded, led the Tar Heels with 21 points, including 15 of their first 44. Only two weeks ago he underwent surgery in which three pins were placed in his broken right index finger.

The Tar Heels will play the West Regional champion, Nevada-Las Vegas, next Saturday, Dr. Timothy Taft, Carolina's orthopedic specialist, said he expected Ford to be ready.

Carolina, the Atlantic Coast Conference champion, won its 14th straight game largely by exploiting tight officiating and Kentucky's slower, more physical players.

Carolina made 33 of 36 free throw, including 13 of 14 by Kuester and eight of eight by Steve Krafcisin, who sank two to give Carolina a 75-72 lead with 36 seconds to play.

In taking a 49-33 lead with four minutes left in the half, Carolina had made 18 of 25 shots, usually open jumpers or layups, as the Tar Heels whipped the ball around faster than the Wildcats could cover up against the Tar Heel "passing game" offense.

Despite all the passing, the Tar Heels made only three turnovers handling the ball. Carolina's other five turnovers came on offensive fouls.

The Tar Heels were able to hold their own on the backboards, their primary concern against the Wildcats, and Kentucky's guards shot blanks so the Wildcats could not loosen up Carolina's inside defense. Jay Shidler was zero for four and Truman Claytor, who made 13 of 15 shots in Thursday's 93-78 win over VMI, was two for six. He had four points, 25 fewer than his last game.

Carolina went to the four corners four minutes after Ford picked up his third foul, a charge on which, he said, he aggravated the elbow injury suffered late in Thursday's 79-77 semifinal win over Notre Dame. Carolina coach Dean Smith already had decided he could not use Ford in the four corners because the all-America guard could not make a free throw during the halftime warmups.

Smith said he went to the four corners earlier than normal because of Ford's injury.

Kentucky, with forward Jack Givens scoring eight of his 26 points early in the second half, had reduced Carolina's lead to 59-53. Smith ordered the four-corners, calling for a variation he said the Tar Heels had not used in a game since 1972. The next four times Carolina possessions resulted three layups and an offensive foul.

Chasing the Tar Heels was particularly hectic for Mike Phillips. At times the 6-foot-10. 250-pounder was running after Rich Yonaker near midcourt.

"It was pretty frustrating," Philips said. "You know you really can't do anything about it. You wait until they make a mistake or you foul. That's the situation we were in."

Carolina went to its four-corner offense ahead by six. It took 11 1/2 minutes for Kentucky to close the gap to less than six points.

Kentucky twice got as close as a point. Rick Robey followed a Krafcisin walk with a three-point play, making it 71-70 with 1:30 left.

Kuester stepped to the foul line 18 seconds later and made two free throws. The first shot rattled around so much that Carolina assistant Eddie Fogler and a couple of reserves could be observed showing their relief on the bench.

Givens came back with Kentucky's last basket, the 10-foot jumper with 47 seconds left, making it 73-72. The Wildcats wasted little time fouling once Carolina got the ball in the front court, and Robey's push of Krafeisin seemed an excellent idea considering the backup center, a freshman, is a 65 per cent foul shooter.

But Krafeisin made both shots and when Kuester grabbed the rebound of Given's miss at the other end, the game essentially was over. All that remained were two more free throws each by Kuester and Krafeisin.

Kentucky stayed even by starting the two big men, Robey and Phillips. But Robey could not keep up with Davis. Coach Joe hall remvoed Robey, who by then had two fouls, in 4 1/2 minutes.

Meanwhile, Yonaker, the slender freshman who starts in place of the injured Tommy LaGarde, had just returned from a rest, which Smith gave all starters except Ford 3 1/2 minutes into the game.

Kentucky's 12-11 lead evaporated quickly as Yonaker beat Phillips downcourt three times for baskets and the Tar Heel's full-court press gave Kuester a jump shot. It was 19-14 and Carolina was under way.

"Yes, I got a little tired," said Phillips, who had not had a rest. "He (Yonaker) ran out on me. I just didn't get back. It wasn't that I wasn't capable. I just didn't do it. If I wasn't capable, he would have done it every time."

Kentucky finished the season with a 26-4 record. Carolina will take a 27-4 record to Atlanta.

Besides Kuester, Davis, Givens, Ron Carter of VMI and Toby Knight of Notre Dame made the all-tournament team.