A tall, lean asterisk in a dark suit, sitting on the Duke bench, chewing gum and watching without any apparent emotion as the No. 1 Tar Heels turned the No. 6 Blue Devils every which way but loose and scored a surprisingly easy, 83-69 victory.
His name is Grant Hill. He was on his way to All-Atlantic Coast Conference and All-America honors, maybe ACC Player of the Year, before suffering a foot injury on Feb. 13. He hasn't played since.
Duke could have used him yesterday, scoring, rebounding, defending and especially handling the ball against the Tar Heels' traps.
Duke also could have used Art Heyman and Jeff Mullins and maybe Christian Laettner and still may not have beaten North Carolina. The Tar Heels, intent on ending a string of three straight losses to the Dukies, were so suffocating on defense and so crisp on offense, they bordered on awesome, if they didn't actually achieve it.
When the horn sounded and the teams had been hustled off the floor, the wine and cheese crowd tossed propriety aside and stormed the floor, covering it with a carpet of whooping, bright-eyed humanity.
Downtown, celebrants swarmed onto Franklin Street. It was big. It was sweet.
But it was Dean Smith who put the asterisk beside it. "We fully realize Duke didn't have Grant Hill," he said. "He probably would have made a difference."
The significance of that remark is not that it would have mattered yesterday but that it will matter down the road, perhaps as soon as the ACC tournament, which opens in Charlotte on Thursday night.
Duke without Grant Hill is not a match for a team as talented as North Carolina. With him, the table levels.
A thorough whipping like this a few days before the tournament could knock a big hole in a team's confidence, but Duke left with no scars. You could tell.
Marty Clark said: "They played a great game, and we give them all the credit for that. But we can play better. We know that. And they know that."
"They're a Top 10 team without Grant Hill," Smith said. "They'll be even better when he comes back."
Not only because of him but also because other players have gotten more playing time in his absence, Smith pointed out.
Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski said that Hill practiced Friday for 25 to 30 minutes and that his injury didn't react well.
"It would have been stupid to try to play him today," Krzyzewski said.
After the game, Hill stood outside the Duke locker room with his dad, former NFL star Calvin Hill.
"I'm getting close," the younger Hill said. "I'll be ready any day now. It's just a matter of getting physically and mentally ready. By physically, I mean getting my foot well. And I've been out so long, I'll have to get my frame of mind back the way it was when I was playing."
The Blue Devils' frame of mind got knocked cockeyed early yesterday. The Tar Heels came out snarling and, feeding off their defense and Duke turnovers, were up 11 points 6 1/2 minutes into the game. Duke had six turnovers and looked befuddled.
One reason for all this was that Derrick Phelps cut the head off the Blue Devils' offense with his defense against Bobby Hurley.
With huge Eric Montross under the basket to swat away anything Hurley brought in there, Phelps could play the all-time NCAA assists leader belly-button to belly-button.
Hurley finished with six points and six assists. That may be the best he has been defended in two years, since he had a horrible clinker against the Tar Heels in the ACC tournament final in 1991.
"I'm disappointed I didn't have the kind of game I would've liked," Hurley said. "But against that kind of team, if you're not right on top of your game, you can have a game like I had."
And a game like Duke had.