Duke may be reeling after losing three of its last five games, but North Carolina has braced itself nonetheless for the clash for first place in the Atlantic Coast Conference Saturday night (WJLA-TV-7, 9 p.m.) at Cameron Indoor Stadium in Durham, N.C.

North Carolina, with a 9-2 ACC record, clinched at least a tie for the regular-season championship with a 71-56 victory over North Carolina State Thursday, its sixth straight victory.

Duke stumbled, however, losing by 21 points at Clemson Wednesday, and trails Carolina by one game going into the final conference game before the ACC tournament begins Thursday in Greensboro, N.C.

A lot is at stake in this game, including the important bye in the first round of the ACC tournament and a possible NCAA tournament bid.

"The odds are really against us winning this game," said North Carolina star Mike O'Koren. "It'll be Duke's last home game, and they probably have a lot they feel they have to prove. The only way for them to make people forget about what happened at Clemson is for them to knock us off.

"We'll be taking their best shot. We just have to stay loose.I know we aren't going to go in there and beat them by 10 or 15 points. We have to hang close, try to get a lead and then go to the four corners."

A victory will give North Carolina the ACC regular-season championship outright and the first-round bye in the tournament.

A Blue Devil victory would make Duke and North Carolina cochampions. In that case, with each having won one of their two conference meetings (Carolina won the first game, 74-68), a coin toss Sunday morning would decide who gets the tournament bye.

The tournament champion will get an automatic NCAA tournament bid, but no more than two teams from any conference can advance to the play-offs.

So if a team other than Duke or North Carolina wins the ACC tournament, the winner of Saturday's game almost certainly will be the conference's second entry in the NCAA tournament.

Most prognosticators picked Duke to be a national power this season and figured North Carolina was a year away.

"We knew we were good, though," said O'Koren, who leads the team in rebounds and assists and is second in scoring. "We get the most out of what we have."

Duke, ranked sixth in one poll and seventh in the other this week, has lost to Pittsburgh, Maryland and Clemson in the past two weeks and is 19-6 overall.

"I know they're going to be so ready for us," O'Koren said, "but at least we have two chances. Even if we lose the game we can still win the coin toss.

"That first-round bye is so important because it gets you by three teams. And also, State could be the last-place team and whoever finishes second will have to play them first. That will be rough," O'Koren said.

O'Koren is scoring less than he did as a sophomore last season, but he has become more of a team leader, stepping into Phil Ford's place.

"A lot of people thought I had to score more this year, but I knew I didn't," O'Koren said. "We have scorers on this team. I knew I just had to work on every part of my game."

O'Koren's strength is inside, "because we have A1 Wood outside," he said.

Around the basket O'Koren has an impressive array of moves and quick shots that make him extremely effective. He plays with that Mitch Kupchak hustle, Walter Davis demeanor and Ford court awareness. He is as good an all-around player as Carolina has ever had.

Defensively, O'Koren will be matched Saturday against Gene Banks. "He hit 16 points on me from the outside in the first half the last time we played them," O'Koren said.

To stop Duke, however, North Carolina must control Mike Gminski.

"We'll play him man to man and then collapse on him," O'Koren said. "It'll be fun. This is the game we've been waiting for all year."