North Carolina and Duke advanced to Saturday's championship game of the Big Four Tournament tonight but they took very different routes to victory.

The sixth-ranked Tar Heels dominated almost from the start, never trailed and walked away with an easy 97-84 win over North Carolina State. The third-ranked Blue Devils were anything but dominant and were lucky to escape with a 72-70 win over Wake Forest in the opener.

"Our defense saved us," Duke Coach Bill Foster said after watching his team score one point during an eight minute stretch. "We hit that dry spell but our defense was tough when we needed it."

Also tough when the Devils needed it was All-American center Mike Gminski. The 6-foot-11 senior finished with 26 points, 15 rebounds and nine blocked shots -- many of them coming in the stretch -- to pull his team through.

Two free throws by Gminski with 39 seconds left provided Duke with the lead for good, 71-69, after the Deacons had led 69-66, but missed three consecutive one-and-one chances which could have put the game away.

"We did everything we needed to in order to win except make the free throws down the stretch," Wake Coach Carl Tacy said. "The effort was certainly there."

His team's effort was led by sophomore center Jim Johnstone, who had 18 points and guard Mike Helms, who had 11. But the young Deacs did not have the killer instinct when Duke was on the ropes.

From the 10:16 mark of the second half -- when a Gminski tip-in gave them a 66-63 lead -- until the 2:16 mark the Blue Devils scored one point in 17 possessions and were one of six from the foul line.

But Wake was not much better. After two free throws by Johnstone with 7:31 left put the Deacons up, 69-66, they scored just one point the rest of the way.

'We had our chances," said a dejected Helms. "We just couldn't seem to get the ball to go down when we could have put them away."

Helms could not get the ball down when he had the chance to tie the game from the foul line with eight seconds left. After Gminski's free throws -- "I just tried to concentrate and follow through like in practice," he said -- the Deacons worked the ball around the Duke zone to Helms who drove the lane and was fouled by Gminski.

Foster called time out. "I wanted to give him a chance to think about what he had to do," the coach said.

Helms thought -- and missed the first shot. He made the second to make it 71-70 but Duke got the ball inbounds to Vince Taylor, its quickest player, and Wake could not catch him to foul until there was just one second left. Taylor made one of two and the clock ran out -- much to Duke's relief. l

North Carolina had no such problems. Led By Al Wood's 24 points, Mike O'Koren's 17 (and seven assists) the Tar Heels outclassed the young Wolfpack.

"I didn't feel like we were winning," the always understated Coach Dean Smith said. "It looked like State was outhustling us and outrebounding us but we were ahead."

Smith also said he was disappointed by his team's defense; felt State was better prepared and more ready to play; felt his team was "outquicked," and complimented State for hustling the ball up court and shooting before his team could set up defensively.

State Coach Norman Sloan didn't quite see it that way after watching his team shoot 36 percent the first half and get blown away, 35-15, during a 10-minute stretch after closing the gap to 45-44 with 17 minutes left.

"Needless to say we played badly," Sloan said. "We never got ourselves together. Our shot selection was very poor. We rushed into our offense too much and just completely fell apart."

As for the shots his team took before Carolina set its offense: "Those were just bad shots," Sloan said. "We don't want to take a lot of those in the future."

Sloan's team was led by Hawkeye Whitney with 21 points (nine for 21 from the floor) and got good play from De Matha grads Sidney Lowe and Derek Whittenburg and 6-11 Thurl Bailey from Bladensburg. "They were our bright spot," Sloan said.

Overall though, Carolina's performance, dominating and controlled throughout, was enough to make it apparent there may not be many bright spots for their oppenents this season.