A North Carolina staple that had gone awry a few times in important games this season -- stall ball -- worked tonight.
The Tar Heels deflated the game late in the first half and for more than half the second and scored a 61-56 victory over Utah in the semifinal round of the NCAA West regionals.
The Tar Heels, who sent Utah to its first home-court loss in 15 games this season, advance to Saturday's 1:15 p.m. regional championship game against Kansas State. The Wildcats also used a delay game in beating Illinois, 57-52, in tonight's second game.
In the opener, a combination of reasons, including the altitude here, forced Coach Dean Smith into his pet four corners offense much sooner than usual. He wanted to keep the Runnin' Utes from living up to their nickname; he also realized the Tar Heels' were getting next to nothing from their own fast break.
"I looked up once and saw four of our guys giving the (fist up) tired sign," Smith said later. "Fact is, I called time once because of us being tired. It's the first time I can remember doing something like that. What we decided, when (Tom) Chambers got his fourth foul, was to go inside."
This was supposed to be a battle of two of the best front courts in all of college basketball -- and Carolina's clearly was superior. The three Utah giants were a combined 10 for 32. Carolina's Sam Perkins, James Worthy and Al Wood had eight more field goals in the same number of shots. Each of the Heels scored 15 points.
As has happened more than usual this season, Carolina was shaky in the four corners. With two freshmen and a sophomore running it, the Heels got nothing on three bonus free-throw chances and also threw the ball away in the last 100 seconds. Still, they won going away.
That happened, mainly, because the host Utes were the ones with the sustained jitters. They shot less than 40 percent for the game, including a game-long one-for-nine drought by Karl Bankowski, and the foul-hampered Chambers played slightly more than half the game.
Down 8-6, the Heels moved steadily ahead on two jumpers by Wood and inside moves by Perkins. While the Utes were erratic, Carolina had little trouble working the ball inside to Perkins and Worthy. And when Wood hit a backdoor layup off a pass from Jimmy Black, Carolina was in control at 21-11.
After Carolina increased that lead by a basket, the Utes finally got going. The partisan crowd was part of the reason, with one sustained cheer after Scott Martin hit an open jumper from the free-throw line. Then he hit another, stole a Wood pass and fed reserve Chris Winans for an uncontested drive.
Worthy hit Perkins twice with splendid alley-oop passes for dunks and held all-America Danny Vranes in check much of the game. Still, Vranes had the most spectacular play of the night, a left-handed, off-balance tip in of a lob pass. But the Utes never could score soon enough or often enough.
The Heels spread their offense before the second half was half finished. They were less than stunning, but patience paid off with two Worthy dunks and a backdoor layup by freshman Matt Doherty.
Utah had its chances in the final three minutes, pulling within five on two Chambers free throws with 98 seconds left. But it countered free-throw misses by Worthy and Black with errors of its own and never got closer than four points.
That came on Martin's drive with 26 seconds left. Then Wood was fouled on a long breakaway and made both free throws. Martin's shot from the left base line rimmed the rim and Doherty followed with two more free throws.
For Utah, the essence of the game was poor Bankowski open time and again about 17 feet on the right base line. He missed so often against the Carolina zone that Heel defenders scarcely gave him the respect of a hand in his face near the end.
"I don't understand it (the Utah poor shooting)," said Vranes. "We were here on our home court. I have never seen Karl have a night like that. They played great defense, really collapsed around us inside.
"I just think that we wanted it so much. We just didn't shoot very well, although they did some things defensively that forced us to change some things."
In the second game, Kansas State scored all but two of its points in the final six minutes from the foul line as Illinois could get no closer than two points with 47 seconds left.
Tim Jankovich missed the second of two free throws for Kansas State with 18 seconds left, but he got a pass off a jump ball and scored a fast-break layup to assure the victory. Unlike its two previous NCAA victories, Kansas State led most of the game tonight.