They had watched top-ranked North Carolina recover from a 16-point deficit to defeat third-ranked Virginia here Thursday night. Now the Villanova Wildcats were trying to protect their lead over the Tar Heels in today's nationally televised game.

Stewart Granger, Villanova's point guard, was not worried, and Dwayne McClain made sure the 12th-ranked Wildcats didn't have to worry after escaping the snowbound East with a bus trip to Atlantic City and a chartered flight here. McClain made three clutch free throws, securing the 56-53 victory at Carmichael Auditorium that ended Carolina's 18-game winning streak.

"Usually when we're up four or five points with five minutes to go, we win the game," Granger said. "We have good foul shooters, very confident people. We weren't worried about a comeback."

After trailing by as many as 10 points in the second half, North Carolina (21-4) closed to 49-45 on Sam Perkins' jump shot with 1:46 remaining. With the Tar Heels having a chance to draw within two, McClain intercepted Steve Hale's pass and was fouled by Perkins with 1:16 to play. McClain made the first of the one-and-one free throws to extend Villanova's lead to 50-45. His two more foul shots with 59 seconds left extended the lead to 52-45.

Jim Braddock's jumper with 53 seconds remaining brought North Carolina back to within five, but John Pinone made both bonus free throws to give Villanova a 54-47 lead with 47 seconds left. A layup by Mike Mulquin at 0:31 clinched the Wildcats' 17th victory in 21 games.

Pinone led Villanova with 14 points. Ed Pinckney had 11 points and 11 rebounds and Gary McLain 10 points for the Wildcats. For North Carolina, Michael Jordan scored 20, Perkins 15 and Braddock 12, all in the second half.

Important factors for Villanova were rebounding, in which it led, 30-21, defense and a lack of turnovers.

"Offensive rebounding was a key," said Coach Rollie Massimino. "We were very active and that was also a key. The name of the game is turnovers and we didn't run into turnovers down the stretch like we did against (No. 7) St. John's (in an 81-80 loss)."

Neither a shot clock nor a three-point shot were used in the game between Big East and Atlantic Coast conference leaders. It was Villanova's first victory over the Tar Heels in four games, including a 70-60 loss in last season's NCAA East Regional final.

"We started chasing with 7:22 left and that is a long time to chase somebody," said UNC Coach Dean Smith. "We were disappointed, but we know that any one of these games you lose in January and February aren't as important as the ones you lose in March (the NCAA playoffs). You don't want to lose in March."

Smith said blaming the loss on a letdown from beating Virginia was not logical, because of the way the Tar Heels played.

"I wouldn't say we were flat today," he said. "That usually affects your defense and our defense was okay. We just couldn't hit the outside shot."

Instead, Smith credited Villanova with "a tremendous job."

Using a tight zone defense and aggressive rebounding, Villanova scored the first seven points, while the Tar Heels missed their first five shots. The Wildcats eventually opened a 21-12 lead on a hook shot by Pinone with 7:25 left in the half.

Carolina rallied and caught up at 23, on Perkins' dunk with 3:46 left, but Granger's free throw gave Villanova a 24-23 lead at halftime.

North Carolina took a 31-30 lead early in the second half on a follow shot by Jordan with 16:34 left, but Pinone's jumper put Villanova ahead, 32-31, with 15:56 to go.

Carolina tied at 35 on Braddock's jumper with 12:30 left. Villanova countered with Mulquin's jumper at 11:58 and never trailed again.

North Carolina's loss left No. 2 Nevada-Las Vegas, the nation's only undefeated team, in position to move into the top spot in the polls.