North Carolina's players and coach said it straight-faced. You might have thought they even believed it. "We expect just as tough a game from Georgia that we would have from St. John's," Tar Heel guard Jimmy Braddock, for one, said.

North Carolina, which plays Georgia today for the NCAA East Region championship (WDVM-TV-9, noon), seemingly got a break when the Bulldogs upset St. John's Friday night. The Tar Heels are not about to admit it, not with Georgia Coach Hugh Durham well within earshot.

St. John's had beaten North Carolina, 78-74, in overtime, in the season opener and weren't the Tar Heels expecting a rematch against a team that was seeded No. 1 in the regional? "That never really entered my mind," Braddock said. "We weren't thinking St. John's, we weren't thinking Georgia."

"They beat a Big East team in Big East country, and that makes them a tremendous team," Coach Dean Smith said. "We're just very happy to be in the final eight."

The defending national champion Tar Heels should have learned a lot about their opponents the other night. Terry Fair, 6-foot-7 senior, tore apart St. John's pivot, scoring a career-high 27 points.

"Fair certainly played with a purpose. He played well," Smith said. Fair can expect Smith's multiple defenses to test his effort severely today. Brad Daugherty, 6-11, probably will be Fair's primary defender, but 6-9 Sam Perkins will lend a hand. Perkins was the one Tar Heel who might be accused, retroactively, of having roused the Bulldogs if Georgia pulls an upset.

"I don't follow much about Georgia," Perkins said. "I don't even know what league they are in."

Georgia was most effective driving against St. John's. North Carolina will try to keep the Bulldogs outside. When St. John's could keep Georgia outside, the Bulldogs had trouble playing the perimeter game.

"We're going to try to get inside," Georgia's Vern Fleming said. "If we can't we'll try something else."

North Carolina had a subpar effort defeating Ohio State on Friday, with all-America guard Michael Jordan shooting five for 15 from the field as the Tar Heels shot 46 percent. No one remembers the last time Jordan had two off games in a row.

"It seems I was just nervous last night (Friday)," Jordan said. "I don't know why . . . We're going in with the mind that they can beat us."

Georgia, the Southeastern Conference tournament champion, is making its first NCAA appearance and has beaten Virginia Commonwealth and St. John's. No victory--to this point--would be bigger than one today. The last final four that encompassed Georgia was in tennis, Durham said.

Georgia knows it will not be favored despite the verbal tributes from North Carolina. Durham wondered aloud why North Carolina's fans were rooting for Georgia to beat St. John's. "The NC band had Bulldogs shakers," he said. Was that a reflection of Southern comfort or rooting for the team that would be more beatable for the Tar Heels?

"I know Coach Smith did the best he could to challenge that," Durham said about Georgia's come-lately status.

"But we're the underdogs. The NC band will not have any Bulldog shakers Sunday."