A 59th-minute point by Brian Smith rescued Malachy McNulty’s side and ended the valiant effort of their somewhat unlucky opponents.
Lillis admitted that they might have ridden their luck at times but felt that the annual experience of football at this time of the year stood to the Laois men.
“We weren’t expecting anything else, only a dogfight,” said Lillis. “We’ve played them up and down in challenge matches and there’s never been too much in it. Even when they went down to 14 men, we knew they’d throw everything at us, and in fairness they did.
“It was testament to our character that we stood up and took all the punishment and still came back on the counter-attack a few times, maybe against the run of the play but we’ll take that.
“It was good to come through that, after a bereavement in the club. We’re a group of brothers and we’ve had bereavements before and it knits us a bit closer. It’s great to get through that battle.
“Experience has to stand to you in those sorts of situations. We’ve come through serious battles in Leinster in the past. I can think of many out on that field, and other fields around.
“In Leinster club, if you’re nine points down or nine points up, you’re never going to win the game by that margin if you don’t keep the foot down. It’s something we’ve learned over time.
“A more inexperienced team could have switched off after they went down to 14 men but we knew to stay driving on, staying doing things simple and grind out the win, and that’s what we did today.”
The heavy rain that had fallen throughout the day made conditions difficult and contributed to the low scoring, with many kicks failing to travel the expected distance.
Portlaoise were unlucky when Conor Boyle saw his rasper cannon back off the Sarsfields crossbar and spurned a couple of gilt-edged opportunities apart from that.
The Newbridge men made the most of their fortune with a brace of 13th-minute points by Sean Dempsey, and Dan Nea followed up five minutes later with a lovely score.
Portlaoise began to settle into the game and had the better of the second quarter, with Gareth Dillon fisting over from a tight angle after showing a clean pair of heels to the Sarsfields cover, before Paul Cahillane twisted excellently to cut the deficit.
The champions were in front when Craig Rogers brilliantly sent Andy O’Brien the wrong way from the penalty spot after Steven Lawlor had been booked for a foot block.
The defender was very unfortunate to be sent off when receiving a second yellow card, having appeared to have been the innocent party in a needless scuffle after the score.
Sarsfields responded well though and were level by half- time (1-2 to 0-5) thanks to points from Sean Campbell and Ray Cahill.
They got their noses in front early in the second half and Graham Brody made a smart save from the electric Ben McCormack but a Cahillane goal, after a sensational turn had created the opportunity, put the hosts ahead once more.
They could never shake off John Crofton’s men though and two Cahill frees brought the sides level before Smith denied them at the death, firing over when in truth, he could have gone for goal after being put through by Cahillane.
Afterwards, Lillis admitted that Portlaoise would need to work on their scoring and predicted another tight battle against Longford champions Killoe in the semi-final.
“We definitely needed the goals but we created the chances before we scored anything. We hit the crossbar and had another goal chance and maybe one or two wides. It was a positive that we were creating the chances. You’d be worried if we weren’t creating them.
“We took our time, we didn’t panic. We were doing the right things; just the last 2% in finishing was missing. We knew it would come eventually if we stayed doing the right things and thank God it did.
“We played Killoe in 2012 on a dogged day out here. They were a great team that day, we were lucky to get through. They scored a few goals and I remember Mickey Nolan, our keeper, pulled off some great saves. It’ll be another dogfight but that’s Leinster club championship. It’s dog eat dog.”
G Brody; C Healy, P Cotter, D Seale; B Mulligan, K Lillis, E Whelan; C Boyle, D Cullen; G Dillon (0-2), B Smith (0-1) B Glynn; C Rogers (1-0 pen), P Cahillane (1-1), B McCormack (0-1).
C Finn for Seale BC (40), R Maher for Glynn (44), K Fitzpatrick for Cullen (53)
A O’Brien; D McDonnell, S Lawlor, S Campbell (0-1); C McConnell, A Scully, C McInerney-Aspell; M Byrne, G White; C Kavanagh, R Cahill (0-5, frees), R Fitzgibbon; B McCormack, D Nea (0-1), S Dempsey (0-3).
C Duffy for Scully (18), C Hartley for Fitzgibbon (ht), C Scanlon for Nea (53), S Ryan for McInerney-Aspell (54), J Geraghty for McDonnell (70)
B Tierney (Dublin).