Down coasted through to the Ulster SFC semi-finals with a 1-18 to 0-14 win over Antrim at Pairc Esler.

Kevin McKernan’s stoppage time goal sent Down in with a 1-9 to 0-5 interval lead, and Antrim’s fading hopes disappeared when defender Ricky Johnston received a straight red card.

Conor Murray and Patrick McBride scored four points each, but Antrim were well beaten on the night as they drop into the Qualifier pot, while the Mourne men, with a last four clash with either Donegal or Derry to come, will feel they can reach the provincial final for a second year in a row.

In front of a crowd of 5,589, Matthew Fitzpatrick shot Antrim into an early lead, and with the towering Niall McKeever stationed at full forward, Lenny Harbinson’s side posed a threat in those opening stages, doubling the lead with a Patrick McBride free.

But after the fleet-footed Caolan Mooney had got the Mourne men off the mark, Donal O’Hare levelled from a free.

They went ahead through Shay Millar, who collected Kevin McKernan’s superb crossfield pass, and while Down were getting into their stride, they struggled to break down an Antrim defence which had wing forwards Mark Sweeney and Ruairi McCann adding weight of numbers.

But showing slick movement and shifting the ball quickly through the hands, Eamonn Burns’ side began to prosper.

Kevin McKernan celebrates scoring the game's only goal before half-time

O’Hare landed another free, and pushing up on Chris Kerr’s kick-outs, Ronan Millar made an intercept and sent McKernan in to fist a point.

And when defender Benny McArdle pressed forward to find the space to pick off a score, they led by 0-7 to 0-3 on 20 minutes.

Goalkeeper Kerr continued to struggle with his kick-outs, but opted not to go long to McKeever, who had now drifted out to the middle, a switch which in turn left the Saffrons badly short inside, with Ryan Murray isolated up front.

They did pull back a couple of scores, but Connaire Harrison pushed the Mourne men into a four points lead, before Kerr’s ill-fated kick-out cost his side dear in stoppage time.

Shay Millar intercepted another short one and slipped the ball to McKernan to finish low to the net. Moments later McKernan was black-carded, but he had secured a 1-9 to 0-5 interval lead for his side.

The Mourne men pushed on with scores from a long range Anthony Doherty free, and two more from O’Hare.

Down defenders McArdle and Colm Flanagan gratefully picked up aimless punts from deep from an Antrim side losing its way and drifting from the game plan, launching counter-attacks that set up points for Conor Maginn and O’Hare, who was sent in on goal by McGinn but had his shot deflected over the bar by Kerr.

Antrim did pull back scores through the Murray brothers, but their evening took another turn for the worse when centre back Ricky Johnston received a straight red card.

As Down’s defensive shape loosened, Antrim were able to get in for scores from McBride, Conor Murray and substitute Kristian Healy, but they were never going to overhaul a Down side that finished strongly, with Sean Dornan kicking his second point and corner back Anthony Doherty striking his third long range free.

Down: M Reid; C Flanagan, B McArdle (0-01), A Doherty (0-03, 3f); D O’Hagan, N McParland, C Mooney (0-01); P Turley, N Donnelly; K McKernan (1-01), C Maginn, S Millar (0-02); D O’Hare (0-07, 5f), C Harrison (0-01), R Millar.

Subs: S Dornan (0-02) for McKernan (BC, h-t), J Flynn for R Millar (50), D McKibbibn for Mooney (56), R McAleenan for Flanagan (56), C McGrady for Harrison (59), N Madine for O’Hare (66).

Antrim: C Kerr; P Healy, P Gallagher, N Delargey; K O’Boyle, R Johnston, J Laverty; P McAleer, N McKeever; M Sweeney, C Murray (0-04, 1f), R McCann; R Murray (0-02, 1f), M Fitzpatrick (0-01), P McBride (0-04, 2f).

Subs: C Duffin (0-01) for Gallagher (h-t), S Beatty for McKeever (49), K Healy (0-02) for McCann (49), D Lynch for Laverty (55), O Eastwood for McAleer (62), M McCarry for P Healy (70).

Referee: D O’Mahony (Tipperary).