Antrim take Ulster title

Antrim 3-20 Down 4-15, Casement Park

Antrim 3-20 Down 4-15, Casement Park

Down's wait for a first Ulster Senior Hurling Championship title since 1997 continues as Antrim got the better of them in this afternoon’s well-contested final at Casement Park.

A trio of injury-time points from Karl McKeegan, Neil McManus and Shane McNaughton steered the Saffrons to their eighth successive Ulster SHC crown, the first leg of a potential provincial hurling and football double for Antrim.

They led by 2-09 to 0-09 at the interval, thanks to goals from McNaughton and Joey Scullion during a prolific 90-second spell.

Paul Braniff (2), Stephen Clarke and Andy Savage netted the visitors’ goals inside 14 minutes of the restart, helping Down recover from a nine-point deficit.

However, Antrim showed greater resolve and their experience shone in the end as they claimed their 49th provincial title.

In the blistering Belfast heat, hurling was the real winner in a game which pitted Down boss Jim 'Jingo' McKernan against his former charges.

Down, who face Carlow in the upcoming Christy Ring Cup final, made little of their underdogs’ tag in this afternoon’s final.

They blazed an early trail as scores from Paul Braniff and Simon Wilson propelled them into a 0-02 to 0-00 lead after just three minutes.

But the hosts had other ideas and they took the lead for the first time in the sixth minute - one they would not relinquish until the 43rd minute.

Karl Stewart cut the deficit to a point, with a well struck free to open Antrim's account, before an early goal onslaught followed.

It was Shane McNaughton who fired home the Saffrons’ first goal in the sixth minute. The move started after the energetic Joey Scullion took on Down defender Fintan Conway.

Conway was beaten for pace, Scullion's shot bounced off the crossbar, with McNaughton on hand to fire his side 1-01 to 0-02 in front.

Scullion followed up with Antrim's second goal, pouncing on the sliotar after Down defender Sean Ennis had lost control of it. Previously trailing by two points, the Saffrons were now five points in front.

Antrim were certainly eager to keep the momentum going as points from Karl McKeegan and Stewart ensured a 2-03 to 0-02 lead at the quarter-hour mark.

But Down rallied with quick-fire points from Simon Wilson and Conor Woods, keeping the Mourne men in touch.

Despite the efforts of Wilson and Woods, and second quarter scores also arriving from Andy Savage, Antrim's early goal brace stood to them as they built a 2-09 to 0-09 interval advantage.

But the eight-in-a-row title chasers were left stunned on the restart as Down roared back at them, mounting a concerted challenge for the trophy.

The sides may have added three scores each inside seven minutes of the restart, but Antrim's points from Paddy Richmond (0-02) and Stewart were outshone by three Down goals.

Paul Braniff bagged a goal either side of Stephen Clarke's three-pointer as the challengers levelled the game for the first time at 3-09 to 2-12.

The 3,000-strong crowd were treated to a fast-paced second half which certainly did not disappoint, with the game on a knife-edge right until the closing moments.

Both sides enjoyed spells of dominance as the lead changed hands several times.

The game swung back in Antrim’s favour when Shane McNaughton added his second goal in the 48th minute, following which Stephen Murray was shown a yellow card after a foul on Karl Stewart.

This gave Antrim a 3-13 to 3-11 lead, but Down regained control from the puck-out, as an Andy Savage goal fired them one point in front.

Further points from Conor O'Prey and Braniff saw Down take a 4-15 to 3-16 lead with five minutes of normal time remaining, but Antrim determinedly dug out the result with a late scoring burst, including that crucial run of injury-time points.

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