Kip Coons, TSN Correspondent
DURHAM, N.C. – It was fitting that a North Carolina-Duke soccer match should come down to a singular individual effort.
Junior forward Zach Wright made a half-field run through the Duke defense and scored on a strike from 20 yards in the 82nd minute to lift eighth-ranked North Carolina to a 2-1 victory over Duke on Friday night before a crowd of 2,273 at Koskinen Stadium.
It marked the 18th time in the last 19 meetings of the Triangle rivals that their game was decided by one goal or ended in a tie.
UNC has had the upper hand in the series, 44-35-10, and has lost just once to Duke in their last 11 showdowns.
That was a 2-1 loss in Durham as the nation’s No. 1-ranked team two years ago.
But Duke couldn’t duplicate the magic against an elite team that ranked second nationally in scoring (2.4) and fifth nationally in goals allowed (0.49).
UNC (10-2-1, 4-1-1) solidified a one-game lead in the Coastal Division of the Atlantic Coast Conference (ACC), leaving it in position to earn a top-two seed in the conference tournament next month.
The Tar Heels return to action Tuesday at College of Charleston. Duke (4-6-2, 1-4-1) will host Campbell on Tuesday.
Wright’s fifth goal of the season capped a comeback from a 1-0 deficit after Duke had broken on top in the 64th minute on junior forward Cameron Moseley’s fourth goal of the season on a header off Max Moser’s corner kick.
Duke’s 1-0 advantage marked only the third time all season that UNC trailed during the run of play.
On Sept. 5 the Tar Heels were down 2-1 at VCU for a 10:40 span before rallying for a 3-2 victory. Last Friday they fell to Virginia 2-1, trailing for the final 12:12.
UNC’s only other loss, to East Tennessee State, came in sudden-death overtime.
This latest deficit lasted only 5:46, before sophomore forward Nils Bruening headed home his team-leading seventh goal of the season to equalize.
Bruening had been marking the taller Moseley defensively when Duke scored, and the sophomore forward from Germany was only too relieved to atone for his misplay.
“I really wanted to make up for it,” Bruening said.
“I give my best every time, but there was an extra motivation for me.”
The goal came when 6-foot-5 forward Tucker Hume was served in the box and flick-headed the ball out on the right wing to midfielder Jeremy Kelly, whose cross found Bruening open at the far post.
UNC coach Carlos Somoano said the Tar Heels didn’t panic when the match was scoreless at halftime or when they fell behind.
“It’s just something that we’ve been talking about over and over and over again a lot with this team, because we have a lot of new faces,” Somoano said.
“Just sticking to our game plan.”
He added, “If you deal with a team that’s defending that well in the box, you can lose your composure. It happened to us last Friday. We had moments in the game against UVa where we were just starting to build a lot of momentum but got sloppy in back, they had one counter, and that’s it, game over. Tonight I like to think we approached it a little bit differently.”
The game-winning goal came on a transition play where it didn’t appear UNC had the numbers to take advantage.
Wright picked up a clearing pass one yard past midfield and dribbled into the heart of the Duke defense.
He split two defenders and launched a shot from just outside the penalty area that skimmed off the bottom of the crossbar and past Duke goalkeeper Robert Moewes, who made all six of his saves in the second half.
“We still had two guys running with him inside,” Duke coach John Kerr said.
“We were right there. We’ve just got to make that extra lunge to make sure he doesn’t get the shot off.”
Wright said he never intended to break off his run.
“One of my teammates who’s out right now — Drew Murphy — told me, ‘These guys if you just run at them full pace, they won’t be able to stay with you,’” Wright said.
“So I just started running at them. Tuck made a great run to open up the space for me, and I just took the shot.”
Wright agreed that the Tar Heels stayed focused this time.
“We knew if we kept pushing ourselves and kept going as a team and trusted each other, one of us eventually would put it in the back of the net,” he said.
“Once Nils did it, I felt like, ‘Oh, we’re going to win this game for sure now.’”
Duke’s loss was its third in a row, and they’re looking very similar to Kerr.
“I thought our guys played a great game tonight,” Kerr said.
“After the first 15-20 minutes, when we were a little tentative and gave them too much possession, we got into the game, and I thought we did a great job. We couldn’t get that elusive second goal. We had good opportunities once again. It’s the same old song.”
UNC held a 10-5 advantage in shots, 8-3 in the second half, over the Blue Devils, who never forced UNC goalkeeper James Pyle to make a save.
But they squandered a golden opportunity in the 54th minute.
Moseley got past his defender on a through ball from Moser and sent a cross to junior forward Brian White, who was all alone at the left post.
All Duke’s leading scorer needed to do was tap the ball into an empty net, but somehow he put it wide around the post.
“It just seems we have no luck,” Kerr said.
“We have opportunities and good chances, but we just can’t convert. If we convert, we’ll get more belief in ourselves. I thought we still had a great game. (UNC) did well; they’re a great team. And they scored their two opportunities. They had more, but they made the most of those two opportunities.”