Two opportunistic goals in a five-minute spell just before half-time by Niamh Mallon and Sorcha McCartan, and another in the 57th minute by Anna Rogan earned Down victory in a pulsating Littlewoods Ireland Camogie League Division Two final at Owenbeg.
This was a repeat of last year’s All-Ireland intermediate final, which Down had won convincingly. But Antrim’s youthful squad went close to posting a momentous triumph when Róisín McCormick’s excellent goal in the 53rd minute drew the sides level.
When Antrim look back on the game, they will bemoan in particular that period just before the interval. But Down also shot 17 wides, 11 of them in the opening half, and will feel that they were deserving champions.
The game went down to the wire because of Antrim’s refusal to roll over. They ran at Down in the second half and almost pulled the game out of the fire.
Despite the high wide count (both teams shot six each in the second half) some of the scores were superb. The pace of proceedings was always high and the intensity of the battle in the same category.
Sorcha McCartan was a key component of the Down attack in the opening period, during which she scored a goal and three points, but all over the pitch during that first half Down were physically imposing themselves on the game and Antrim were living off scraps.
However those scraps were keeping them ahead with the promise of a bigger threat with the wind on their backs for the second half.
Though Sara Louise Graffin hit a first-minute point, Down took a while to get going and the Saffrons went into a 0-3 to 0-2 lead with fine points from Nicole O’Neill, Róisín McCormick and Maeve Kelly.
However Sorcha McCartan then levelled when a piledriver was touched over the bar by Catriona Graham.
Cáitrín Dobbin took an excellent wide delivery from Niamh Donnelly and pointed in the 11th minute and Nicole O’Neill converted a free just after the water break to put Antrim two up as Down’s wides increased including four from frees that Paula O’Hagan tends to nail.
But suddenly Down hit 2-3 without reply. Tied down at full-forward by Caoimhe Conlon, Niamh Mallon began to wander the width of the inside forward line and the Antrim defence started to look vulnerable.
Frees from Mallon and McCartan had levelled the game before Mallon picked up possession around 30m out and rounded a couple of players before accelerating away to bat the sliotar to the roof of the net without breaking stride.
McCartan added a point while off balance and then goaled with a ferocious strike from just inside the 20m line, after selling an outrageous dummy when she ran on to Graffin’s diagonal delivery.
Nicole O’Neill responded with a lovely point but it was still 2-6 to 0-6 at the change of ends.
Antrim emerged better organised at the back for the second half and they conceded just one point in the next 26 minutes. That score came from Niamh Mallon who exchanged points with Nicole O’Neill early in the half.
Antrim then began to reduce the deficit with points from Róisín McCormick, Anna Connolly and an O’Neill free. Then McCormick fired home a superb goal in the 53rd minute, from a move started by Shauna Devlin and involving Cáitrín Dobbin.
McCormick still had a lot to do, but she killed the sliotar on her hurl and ran in an arc around the cover before providing the finish the build-up demanded with a low drive to Catherine McGourty’s left corner.
The teams were level and Antrim had all the momentum. But Down have more experience of these types of situations and they were the ones who found the killer touch.
Sara-Louise Graffin grabbed a high clearance from Karen McMullan and advanced behind the Antrim cover before releasing Mallon who hared in, drew the last defender and left Anna Rogan the simplest of tasks from close range.
Although McCormick responded with another excellent point, it was the decisive score and Mallon sealed the deal by pointing a late 45.
Down: Catherine McGourty, Erin Rafferty, Dearbhla Magee, Cáitríona Caldwell, Beth Fitzpatrick, Karen McMullan, Deirbhle Savage, Paula O’Hagan, Aoife Keown, Aimee McAleenan, Sara Louise Graffin capt 0-2, Sorcha McCartan 1-3, 0-1 free, Lauren Clarke, Niamh Mallon 1-3, 0-2 frees, Anna Rogan 1-0.
Subs : Danielle Harrison for E Rafferty (40)
Antrim : Cáitríona Graham, Katie McKillop, Caoimhe Conlon, Maria Lynn, Colleen Patterson, Niamh Donnelly, Laoise McKenna, Lucia McNaughton capt, Amy Boyle, Maeve Kelly 0-1, Anna Connolly 0-1, Nicole O’Neill 0-5, 0-3 frees, Róisín McCormick 1-3, Ciara Laverty, Caitrín Dobbin 0-1.
Subs : Shauna Devlin for L McKenna (HT), Christine Laverty for Ciara Laverty (56).
Referee : Barry Nea (Westmeath)