The basic fact today was Clemson 16, North Carolina 13.

And in between choruses of "The North Carolina Boys Just Ain't What They Used To Be" in the Clemson locker room afterward, the name Maryland kept being mentioned.

That is because 13th-ranked Clemson (6-1-1), the defending national champion, will travel to College Park next Saturday for the showdown between the two teams. Both have 4-0 records in the Atlantic Coast Conference, with one conference game remaining afterward.

"We're shooting for that ACC reign one more time," said William Perry, Clemson's 310-pound defensive lineman.

And what of Maryland? "A big contest," said Perry, a big man.

Holding up his 1981 ACC championship ring in the corner of the locker room, quarterback Homer Jordan, who did not play today, vowed his injured knee would be plenty healed for the Terrapins. "That game is what it is all about," he said.

All of this revelry did not camouflage the basic fear today. With 39 seconds left, 18th-ranked North Carolina was driving for a winning touchdown and reached the Clemson 15.

Once there, the Tar Heels also reached a fourth-and-four situation.

North Carolina Coach Dick Crum, needing a victory to keep his Tar Heels (5-3, 2-2) in the conference race, opted to go for the touchdown rather than a possible game-tying 32-yard field goal.

The fact that his kicker, Brooks Barwick, had already made two 36-yarder field goals today, did not matter. A touchdown, Crum felt, was required.

But on fourth down, tailback Tyrone Anthony, who was wide open in the right flat, dropped a short pass from quarterback Scott Stankavage.

Once the pass was dropped and the Clemson players' fists were raised in triumph, the only decisions left were for the second-guessers among the 63,700 in Memorial Stadium today.

"That play was our bread and butter. That was it. We call it 86, just plain 86," said Stankavage, who completed 15 of 31 for 210 yards with two interceptions and one touchdown.

"I started to run before I really had it," said Anthony.

"If he had caught it," said Perry, "he had a touchdown, no doubt."

Fate seemed to conspire today against the Tar Heels. The conspiracy began on their first drive when starting quarterback Rod Elkins sprained the left knee that has been troubling him all year. He left the game, never to return, having completed all seven passes for 70 yards. He is expected to miss next week's game against Virginia.

"We knew we had Scott (Stankavage), so losing Rod really didn't get us down," said Tar Heel tailback Kelvin Bryant, who gained 86 yards on 17 carries. "But it didn't get us up, either."

After the first quarter ended in a 3-3 tie -- Clemson's Bob Paulling kicked a 48-yard field goal to follow Barwick's 36-yarder -- Barwick made another early in the second quarter and North Carolina led, 6-3.

Then Clemson served its rebuttal in the form of Mike Eppley's five-yard touchdown pass to Frank Magwood with 6:51 left in the half. Clemson led, 10-6.

With 57 seconds left in the half, Paulling kicked a 43-yard field goal and Clemson's lead was 13-6.

Stankavage is a resourceful sort, though. In the next 41 seconds, he drove North Carolina 38 yards in four plays to the Clemson 16. But fate and linebacker Johnny Rembert intervened with an interception on the 10-yard line with 16 seconds left in the half.

Thus, there was no North Carolina touchdown, no field goal. There was nothing. "A ridiculous pass," Stankavage said.

In the third quarter, Stankavage wouldn't make the same mistake. He threw a three-yard touchdown pass to tight end Arnold Franklin and it was tied at 13 with 5:44 left in the quarter.

That tie lasted less than five minutes. After throwing two straight incompletions to begin the next drive, Eppley (seven of 18 for 90 yards, one touchdown, one interception), just kept handing the ball to tailbacks Chuck McSwain (19 carries for 77 yards) and Cliff Austin (24 carries, 82 yards).

The strategy led Clemson on an 11-play, 49-yard drive, which ended when Paulling kicked a 46-yard field goal with 57 seconds left in the quarter.

Sure, Bryant continued to cut and dance, cut and dance for 64 yards in the second half. "If you miss him the first time, he's gone," said Terry Kinard, Clemson's all-America safety, whose third-quarter interception was his fifth of the season and the 16th of his career, setting a school record.

Sure, Paulling would miss a 32-yard field goal with 2:38 left, missing a chance to increase the lead to 19-13. Clemson Coach Danny Ford elected to attempt the field goal on fourth and six from the North Carolina 16.

"It kind of surprised me we went for a field goal. Three points wouldn't have done much good," Paulling said.

But it all came down to the final drive. After Paulling's miss, Stankavage set sail North Carolina's final hope, embarking from the North Carolina 20. "Looked as though they were going to try and win it," Ford said.

The Tar Heels, however, finished 15 yards short. In glum tones, Bryant said, "Coach Crum told us after the game that 8-3 would be a good season."