That he saw the first half tonight left Dean Smith depressed, but the return of the coach's old friend, North Carolina's dreaded four-corners offense, bucked up his spirits later when it left Ohio State for dead, 64-51, in the NCAA East Regional.

Over the last eight minutes, North Carolina's defending national champions outscored Ohio State, 16-7, as they worked the delay offense with such skill that it produced four layups from point-blank range and six straight free throws.

It also produced the idea that Carolina can win this tournament again, although Smith said, "Our goal last week was to get to the final eight. Our new goal is to get to the final four."

The Tar Heels (28-7) are only one victory away from Smith's ninth trip to the final four. They can earn that ticket to Albuquerque with a victory Sunday over Georgia, a shaky 70-67 winner tonight over St. John's.

Although it extended its first-ever trip to the NCAA tournament, teeny-tiny Georgia (23-9) was deep into fingernail-biting time while it struggled to preserve a victory earned in a second-half comeback against the Big East tournament champion (28-5).

Center Terry Fair, Georgia's "big man" at 6-foot-7, scored 13 of the his team's last 34 points. On Chris Mullin's 10 points and Bill Wennington's eight, St. John's built a 29-27 halftime lead and led, 39-36 before Fair rose to the chore.

In an 11-2 streak that gave Georgia a 45-41 lead, Fair scored five points on resounding power moves and assisted on two more baskets. With seven of nine free throws in the game's last 91 seconds, Georgia survived a St. John's rally that cut a six-point deficit to two at 66-64 with 42 seconds left.

However nerve-wracking Georgia was in its delay game the last four minutes, North Carolina was serenely competent.

"That's by far the longest we've used the four corners this season," Smith said. "And, if you believe it, that's longer than we used it against Virginia in the ACC tournament last season."

That slowdown game produced the 30-second clock in the Atlantic Coast Conference this year. But tonight came evidence that Carolina's limited use of the four corners this season hasn't reduced its effectiveness. Forced out of its strong 2-1-2 zone into man-to-man defense, Ohio State (20-10) was no match for Carolina's patient, precise ball handling.

It was 48-44, with 7:57 to go, when Smith called timeout. Barely four minutes later, it was 56-46 as Sam Perkins came down from the mountain with a roaring dunk off a neat back-door pass from Matt Doherty.

"For 30 minutes . . . " Ohio State Coach Eldon Miller said, singing the sad song so many coaches wail after losing to Carolina. "North Carolina executed that (the four corners) very well. We tried to get some five-second calls. But we got off balance denying the passes, and they got some some easy baskets."

So on a night when all-America forward Michael Jordan made five of 15 shots, when all-America center Sam Perkins played 24 minutes because of foul trouble--on a night when the Tar Heels might have lost, they used the four corners and scrambling, confusing defenses to earn a victory that seemed Ohio State's midway through the second half.

"I was extremely disappointed and didn't like our position at halftime," said Smith. His team once led, 25-16, before falling behind at intermission, 30-29, as an unheralded Ohio State sophomore, Joe Concheck, scored eight of his 10 first-half points in the last five minutes.

Ohio State still led, 42-40, with 11 1/2 minutes to play.

"Then we couldn't get the ball inside against their zone," Miller said. "We really had to get the ball into Tony Campbell and Granville Waiters' hands." Those two combined for 18 points, compared to their season's average of 30.

"I thought our Carolina Scramble was good," Smith said. "That's when we show man-to-man defense and go zone press . . . We obviously played more zone the second half and it worked, so we stayed in it."

With their defense tilting momentum the Tar Heels' way, the offense produced an 8-0 streak in 2:11 for a 48-42 lead that gave Smith a chance to run the four corners.

When Ohio State cut the lead to 48-44, Carolina ran off 54 seconds before Smith called time at 7:57.

Perkins was on the bench with four fouls. If you're going to lose an NCAA tournament game, you lose with Sam Perkins playing, not sitting. So to get Perkins into the game, Smith went to his delay.

As Doherty took a slow stroll across court, signaling the beginning of the four-corner torture, many of the 20,000 customers in the Carrier Dome said, "Boooooo."

"It's fun-type basketball," Doherty said. "I enjoy it a lot, although a lot of fans don't."

Afterwards, someone asked Miller how much he practiced defense this week against Carolina's four corners.

"Not that often," Miller said. "I didn't expect to be going against it. I thought we'd be ahead."

Eyebrows must have raised a silly millimeter because Miller then said, "I'm serious."