North Carolina did in North Carolina State with a 15-0 scoring spurt late in the first half and coasted to victory, 71-56, tonight in Carmichael Auditorium.
The Tar Heels clasped a one-game lead over second-place Duke in the Atlantic Coast Conference with one game left. The regular-season championship will be decided Saturday night in Durham when the Tar Heels and Blue Devils meet.
If North Carolina wins, it gains the first-round bye in next week's ACC tournament. If Duke wins, the two tie for the title with 9-3 records; because they would have split their two conference meetings this season, the bye would be decided by a coin toss.
Mike O'Koren, with 21 points and seven assists, led fourth-ranked UNC to its 21st victory. He got into foul trouble and had to sit out nearly seven minutes of the second half, but was the key man.
O'Koren garnered most of his points inside with an assortment of fancy moves against both the Wolfpack's man-to-man and zone defenses.
Those 15 connective points that sealed the outcome flowed after Clyde Austin had given State a 22-17 lead by hitting two long jumpers with 7:44 left in the half.
N.C. State missed its next 11 shots, and Carolina slipped into its rhythm and took the game away.
O'Koren posted six points and two assists in the surge and Pete Budko had six points. All came either off layups or from the foul line.
State finally ended a 4:14 drought when Tiny Pinder made a 16-footer. But the Wolfpack was down by 10 then and never really recovered.
State shot a weak 35 percent from the field in the first half and not because it was taking bad shots. The Pack missed layup after layup. Art Jones, Hawkeye Whitney and Pinder missed uncontested layups and on one possession, Craig Watts missed a layup and two easy tap-in.
State mustered one run at the Tar Heel midway through the second half.
Whitney, who missed four of five shots in the first half, started finding the range and scored seven straight State points. Then Kenny Matthews and Austin each made a pair of baskets and State had cut what was once an 11-point Tar Heel lead to 54-50 with 8:46 left.
UNC's Dave Colescott killed that rally on his team's next possession when he drove the baseline on Austin and scored on a layup as he was fooled. He converted the three-point play and Carolina had a seven-point lead, 8:33 to play.
State missed on its next possession, Carolina went to its four-corner offense and the game was over.
Colescott totaled 13 points. Austin with 14 and Whitney with 13 led the Wolfpack.
Coach Dean Smith said he feels his Carolina team "is playing our best basketball of the season right now," but added, "we're facing almost insurmountable odds at Duke. Duke will be ready for us coming off that embarrassing loss at Clemson."
State Coach Norm Sloan kept seeing those failed layups.
"By my count we missed eight of them," he said "Nobody misses them on purpose but those things will happen."