CRUSADERS 4 BALLYMENA UNITED 3
(after extra time, 90 mins 3-3)
Crusaders booked their place in next month’s NIFL League Cup final with an extra-time victory over Ballymena United on Tuesday night.
Jordan Owens’ header in the 99th minute finally claimed a 4-3 win at Seaview.
David Cushley bagged a classy hat-trick in the opening 45 minutes to give Ballymena a healthy 3-1 lead at the break.
Declan Caddell - who scored Crusaders’ reply in the first half - got a second for the home side in the 66th minute before substitute Gary McCutcheon levelled matters from the spot four minutes later.
Owens finally settled the tie with a close-range header nine minutes into the first period of extra time.
Cushley was the star man in the opening half with his sublime hat-trick.
The first was a bullet header from six yards in the 24th minute, with the second arriving three minutes later with a clinical first-time strike from the edge of the box.
Crusaders were back in it within a minute of Cushley’s second, with Caddell delivering a cross from the right which ghosted across the face of goal before bouncing in off the post.
Cushley got his hat-trick goal in the final minute of the half, the winger racing onto Allan Jenkins’ flicked header before breezing past the stranded Sean O’Neill and firing into the empty net.
Cushley hit the post on the hour mark as Ballymena looked to extend their lead, but it was Caddell who managed to find another reply for the Crues in the 66th minute.
Substitute Gary McCutcheon’s free-kick rebounded off the crossbar and Caddell pounced to head home from close range.
It was 3-3 on 70 minutes when Crusaders were awarded a penalty after Tony Kane fouled substitute Paul Heatley inside the box.
Up stepped McCutcheon to send Dwayne Nelson the wrong way.
Paul Leeman almost grabbed a fourth for the Crues but his near-post header cannoned off the bar from Morrow’s corner.
Crusaders forged ahead for the first time on the night in the first period of extra time.
United keeper Nelson’s attempted pass to Johnny Taylor went behind for a soft corner, and when Morrow delivered the cross there was Owens to head home from five yards.
Crusaders will now meet derby rivals Cliftonville in the League Cup final on January 25 - a repeat of last year’s decider which the Reds won 4-0.
CRUSADERS: O’Neill, Leeman, Magowan, Coates, McClean, E. McAllister (McMaster 103), Morrow, Hanley (Heatley 46), Caddell, Snoddy (McCutcheon 46), Owens.
Subs not used: Cleary, D. McAllister.
BALLYMENA: Nelson, Kane, McCullagh (Ruddy 46), Taylor, Stewart, Thompson, Surgenor (Davidson 99), Taggart (Dolan 101), Cushley, Jenkins, Teggart.
Subs not used: Liggett, Addis.
Referee: Colin Burns (Comber)