Jay Donnelly was the hat-trick hero as Cliftonville disposed of Ards at Solitude.
Playing wide on the left, Donnelly converted headers on 14 and 73 minutes to put the Reds in control before being pushed up front for the final stages, during which another smart finish ensured receipt of the matchball.
The deadlock was almost broken after just two minutes when Cameron Stewart nearly benefited from some comical home defending that saw goalkeeper Brian Neeson scamper back just in time to ensure Jaimie McGovern’s wayward pass didn’t end in the back of the net.
Guillaume Keke then drew a save from the home keeper before, at the other end, a Levi Ives’ throw-in was held up by Jay Donnelly and Joe Gormley fired in a fierce shot that Sam Johnston repelled.
There was nothing he could do on 14 minutes, though, when Jay Donnelly seized upon Ruairi Harkin’s free-kick to head in from close range.
Johnston then prevented Conor McDonald from making it 2-0 with a low drive before Ards substitute Jonny Frazer called Neeson into action.
The final scoring chance of the first-half came the hosts’ way when Ives’ corner found Jamie Harney totally unmarked in the area but he directed his header straight into the grasp of the keeper.
Shortly after the turnaround, Ross Clarke blazed over the top as Ards threatened an equaliser ahead of Johnston making a superb stop to prevent Donnelly from doubling the hosts’ lead.
Claims of handball outside the area by Neeson were dismissed by referee Raymond Hetherington before the home keeper made a sensational low save to keep Frazer at bay.
Ards’ race was run on 73 minutes when Donnelly rose highest to nod Conor McDonald’s corner home and the striker wrapped up his treble when he dinked the ball over the advancing Johnston from Gormley’s fine assist.
CLIFTONVILLE: Neeson, McGovern, Ives, Harney, Curran, Harkin, Gormley, J Donnelly, Cosgrove, McDonald, R Donnelly. Subs: Dunne, Bagnall (for R Donnelly, 66 mins), Winchester, Lavery (for Curran, 72 mins), Grimes (for Harney, 77 mins).
ARDS: Johnston, Glendinning, Ruddy, Taylor, Byers, J Kelly, Cherry, Mitchell, Keke, Stewart, Clarke. Subs: McLellan (for Clarke, 66 mins), L Kelly, Tommons, Davidson, Frazer (for Stewart, 19 mins).
REFEREE: Raymond Hetherington (Dungannon)