Joe McDonagh Cup
Antrim 2-22 Carlow 1-22
IT required a strong finish from Antrim as they maintained their 100 per cent record in the Joe McDonagh Cup at the expense of Carlow at Corrigan Park on Saturday.
On a day for rolling up the sleeves, it was ultimately Antrim's grit that saw them over the line as they rattled off six points in a row down the stretch to claim a victory that leaves them in a very strong position for reaching the final.
Carlow arrived determined to make up for last week's home defeat to Kerry and they certainly got the performance that manager Tom Mullally would have hoped for, but not the points as their ambitions of reaching the decider now hang by a thread.
Still, they gave Antrim nothing easy and always seemed to have an answer as they battled back from seven behind midway through the opening half to get to within one at the break and appeared to be winning this arm-wrestle of a game until Antrim found the reserves down the home straight to put themselves in a very healthy position in the group.
Conal Cunning top-scored with 1-11 for the victors with his Dunloy clubmate Seaan Elliott adding three excellent points from play while Martin Kavanagh and Chris Nolan shone in attack for the Barrowsiders, but this was a day for rolling up the sleeves in a tough encounter that Antrim just managed to find the answers at the right time to prevail.
"It was hard work but they are the ones to win - we're learning to win the tight ones, which is great," said Antrim manager Darren Gleeson.
"A good impact off the bench was a big help. Daniel (McKernan) and Michael Bradley got on a good bit of ball; Niall McKenna came back in; 'Sammy' (Eoin O'Neill) got a great point, so we'd be happy with that.
"The last time we played Carlow two years ago in Dr Cullen Park we had to get a last-minute goal to draw.
"They have serious forwards like Chris Nolan and Martin Kavanagh who are serious operators. Sean Murphy and John Michael Nolan are big ball winners, Richard Coady an established inter-county hurler, Diarmuid Byrne... We knew coming in today we would need every inch of us to get over the line."
While Paddy Burke pointed the hosts into the lead on 16 seconds, they took a little while to get to grips with this game as after Martin Kavanagh tied matters from a free, Ryan Elliott was forced into a low save from Conor Kehoe who got through on goal too easily.
Carlow were crowding their defence and creating more, but poor shooting left the sides locked on 0-3 after 12 minutes when Antrim were in for their first goal as Ciaran Clarke made a good break and passed inside to Conal Cunning to do the honours.
A pair of Cunning frees stretched the lead, while Kavanagh's flick to John Michael Nolan's line ball at the other end flashed just over.
Goal number two for the hosts would come on 18 minutes and it was a beauty of a finish from Neil McManus who jinked inside and finished past Brian Tracey at the near post after the ball moved through Joe Maskey, Clarke and Conor McCann.
Two goals was the gap on 25 minutes when Carlow struck for one of their own as Eoghan Campbell missed a long ball that skidded off the greasy surface and Chris Nolan gleefully gathered to send an unstoppable shot past Elliott. Carlow's centre forward almost had another within seconds but this time Elliott made another stunning stop.
The momentum swung back to the Barrowsiders as mistakes crept back into Antrim's play as the rest of the half descended into something of a free-taking contest with Carlow just one adrift at the break, 2-8 to 1-10.
Carlow made a much better start to the second period with Nolan and Kavanagh pointing to nudge them ahead and while Elliott tied the game, further scores from Kevin McDonald and a Kavanagh free seemed the energise the visitors.
Antrim just couldn't seem to get going until a good run of scores from Cunning and Elliott edged them briefly back in front as the sides traded blows with neither able to shake the other off.
Chris Nolan and Richard Coady drilled over points to put Carlow two up and while Ciaran Clarke replied with his second of the afternoon, a John Michael Nolan point appeared to leave the Barrowsiders well placed on 61 minutes.
Just when it seemed this was a game that was getting away from Antrim, they summoned the reserves to roar back with Joe Maskey pointing and Cunning levelling from a free before a great piece of anticipation by Eoin O'Neill from the subsequent poc-out saw him read the play to intercept and return it over the bar on 68 minutes.
Conal Bohill then landed his second of the day to double the Antrim lead with a pair of Cunning frees giving them breathing space.
A late Martin Kavanagh free left a goal in it, but the chance to equalise just didn't look like coming as Antrim cleared one last ball on top of them to maintain their perfect record in the competition.
"You would be looking on there thinking is it ever going to click for us, but we won a couple of hard balls and we lost Neil there to an injury," added Gleeson.
"It maybe took us a few minutes to react out of that but I never thought we were going to lose it, although I was waiting for us to get going.
"We looked threatening, but there were just one or two plays that didn't click. We were threatening going forward in the first half, but too many basic handling errors at the back kept them in the game.
"We went six or seven up playing against the breeze, soft goal given away at the back with a ball we should have had and six scorable frees (conceded) are the things we have to work on.
"We have Meath and Kerry next with the destiny is in our own hands - that's what you want."
ANTRIM: R Elliott; P Duffin, G Walsh, N O'Connor; P Burke (0-2), E Campbell, C Bohill (0-2); J Maskey (0-1), J McNaughton; S Elliott (0-3), C Clarke (0-2), Conor McCann; Conal Cunning (1-11, 0-10 frees), D Nugent, Neil McManus (1-0)
Subs: M Bradley for J McNaughton (46), E O'Neill (0-1) for N McManus (50), D McKernan for D Nugent (57), N McKenna for C McCann (63), A Bradley for J Maskey (70+4)
CARLOW: B Tracey; P Doyle, C Lawlor, M Doyle; J McCullagh, D Byrne (0-1), R Coady (0-1); F Fitzpatrick (0-1), C Kehoe (0-1); S Murphy, C Nolan (1-4), K McDonald (0-2); JM Nolan (0-1), M Kavanagh (0-11, 9 frees), P Coady
Subs: J Nolan for K McDonald (63), J Doyle for S Murphy (70+2)
REFEREE: Sean Stack (Dublin)