By Cóilín Duffy
Antrim 1-15 Down 1-14
A 69th minute Conor McKinley point was crucial as Antrim dug deep to claim their 55th Ulster Senior Hurling title in Owenbeg this afternoon.
Kevin Ryan's side fell three points in arrears with 17 minutes remaining, but dug deep to capture silverware.
The sides were level on four occasions inside the opening 20 minutes, with Conor McCann netting an early Antrim goal.
However, Down took control thanks to a Gareth Johnston (1-8) penalty goal, and led by 1-9 to 1-6 at half-time.
Antrim worked hard, but were guilty of wides in the third quarter, An eighth Johnston point handed Down a 1-13 to 1-10 lead, but Antrim finished strongly.
1,143 spectators watched Antrim get off to a superb start and lead by 1-1 to 0-1 after just two and a half minutes.
Dessie McClean opened the scoring with the first of his six points from frees, and although this was quickly cancelled out by Johnson effort from a placed ball, Antrim took the lead once again from the resulting puck out.
Conor McCann sent in a long ball, as the Down rear-guard was breached for the first and only time, with Daniel McKernan and Michael Hughes battling for possession, but the ball finished in the net.
However, Antrim failed to build on this, with Down taking the lead for the first time in the 11th minute, after Johnson, Steven Dineen and Paul Sheehan tagged on scores.
McClean equalised with a 17th minute pointed free, before Conor Woods and McClean traded scores.
Down took the lead yet again after 23 minutes, when Johnson registered his fourth point, but the Ardsmen struggled to build on this lead.
Down hit two wides, before Johnson was dragged down by Thomas McCann for a 28th minute penalty which he converted, to push Down 1-7 to 1-3 in front.
Antrim rallied with points from McClean and Ryan McCambridge, but Down took a deserving 1-9 to 1-6 interval advantage, with Johnson bringing his tally to 1-6 by the half-time break.
They then introduced Paddy Burke and Cormac Ross at the interval, while Donal Hughes replaced Sheehan for Down.
Antrim came within a point of Down inside five minutes of the restart thanks to a brace of McClean pointed frees, but failed to equalise, after Neal McAuley fired wide.
Michael Ennis and Conor McCann swapped points as did Johnson and Conor Carson, before Conal Fitzsimons handed Down a 1-12 to 1-10 lead in the 43rd minute.
Both sides were guilty of missed chances, and although Johnson pushed Down three points clear, Antrim came back.
With Conor Carson in superb form, he grabbed this game by the neck, kick-starting a bright patch for the Saffrons with a well struck score.
Substitutes Cormac Ross and James Connolly added a point each to level the tie at 1-13 apiece with four and a half minutes of normal time remaining.
Both sides had countless chances to add to their tallies, but when Donal Hughes slotted over a 68th minute point, it looked like Down might take the title for the first time since 1997.
However this was to be Down’s final score, as points from PJ O’Connell and McKinley sent Antrim on the way to yet another crown.
ANTRIM: C O’Connell; O McFadden, M Donnelly, R McCambridge (0-1); J Dillon, C McKinley (0-1), T McCann; N McAuley, M Dudley; PJ O’Connell (0-1), C McCann (1-1), E Campbell; D McClean (0-6, 6f), C Carson (0-2), D McKernan (0-1). Subs: P Burke for Campbell (HT); C Ross for Donnelly (HT); N McKenna for McAuley (42); J Connolly (0-1, 1f) for McKernan (56); D Traynor (0-1) for McClean (56).
DOWN: S Keith; M Hughes, S Ennis, M McCullough; R Branagan, C O’Neill, D McManus; P Sheehan (0-1), F Conway; C Woods (0-1), J McCusker, S Dineen (0-1); J McManus, G Johnson (1-8, 7f, 1-0pen), J Coyle. Subs: C Fitzsimmons (0-1) for Coyle (12); M Ennis (0-1) for McCusker (24); D Hughes (0-1) for Sheehan (HT); S Nicholson for F Conway (58); M Turley for Fitzsimmons (67); M Nicholson for Johnson (Blood 72-FT)
REFEREE: David Hughes (Carlow)