Donegal held on to win a tight tussle at Kingspan Breffni Park, defeating Down by 0-12 to 0-9 to reach a third successive Ulster SFC final.
Three Michael Murphy points and two from Colm McFadden gave Donegal the edge, but Donal O’Hare converted three frees for a Down side that trailed by 0-6 to 0-4 at the break.
Stubborn Down kept in touch throughout, but long range frees from Murphy and McFadden in the closing stages sealed it for the Ulster and All-Ireland champions.
Jim McGuinness’ side were far from their ruthless best, and they were challenged all the way by a Down side that rose to the challenge magnificently in terms of courage and fervour, but lacked cohesion and a clinical touch at crucial times.
In front of a crowd of 21,715, Donegal soaked up a spell of pressure before going ahead with a Murphy free in the sixth minute, and in typical fashion, they turned over possession to give Murphy the opportunity to double the lead, which he duly did with an accurate finish from play.
Starved of possession, Down full forward Benny Coulter drifted deep in a bid to get involved in the action, but it was the All-Ireland champions who continued to boss the contest, and when Colm McFadden followed up a converted free with an excellent point from play, they led by four.
Down finally got off the mark in the 15th minute when place-kicker Donal O’Hare punished a foul on Coulter, and a second conversion from the Burren man halved the deficit.
Getting as many as 14 men behind the ball, Down’s version of the Donegal blanket was less than convincing, and sloppy use of possession allowed their opponents in for another couple of scores, Murphy and Paddy McBrearty splitting the posts for a 0-6 to 0-2 advantage on 22 minutes.
Coulter often found himself isolated, and on one occasion he faced six defenders with not a single player in support, but managed to hold the ball up long enough to offload to the arriving Mark Poland, who slotted over a neat point.
Now just two points separated the sides, and Down were defending much more effectively at this stage, holding their opponents scoreless for the last 16 minutes of the first half.
Donegal led by 0-6 to 0-4 at the break, but with a gusting wind in their backs in the second half, pulled further clear with a Rory Kavanagh point, despite the los through injury of Ryan Bradley and Frank McGlynn.
Declan Rooney and Peter Turley provided stubborn resistance at the back for Down, and Benny McArdle maintained a close watch on a subdued Murphy, but McFadden exploited a lapse in concentration to push Donegal’s lead out to three at the beginning of the final quarter.
However, the Mourne men remained very much in touch, and centre back Turley led the charge that led to another O’Hare score. It was only their second point from play, but it trimmed the gap back to two.
A rare moment of supreme quality saw McFadden steer over a long range beauty, but again, Down cancelled out the score when substitute Jerome Johnston nailed one with his first touch.
James McCartan’s men were still very much in touch, and they sensed that the champions were vulnerable, unforced errors inviting Down to push forward in the closing stages.
But they could only manage a converted free from Danny Savage, and when Murphy and McFadden both thumped over marvellous long range frees, both from around the 50 metre mark, Donegal had it in the bag, and they will bid to become the first county to win three Ulster titles in a row since Armagh completed a treble in 2006 when they meet either Monaghan or Cavan in the decider.
Donegal: P Durcan, P McGrath, N McGee, E McGee, Declan Walsh, F McGlynn, A Thompson, R Bradley, R Kavanagh (0-1), David Walsh, L McLoone, M McHugh, P McBrearty (0-1), M Murphy (0-5, 4f), C McFadden (0-5, 2f).
Subs: M O’Reilly for David Walsh, M MCElhinney for Bradley, R McHugh for McGlynn, R Wherity for McLoone, D Molloy for McBrearty.
Down: B McVeigh, D McCartan, B McArdle, K Quinn, D Rooney, P Turley, R Boyle, K King, K McKernan, A Rogers, M Poland (0-1), N Madine, C Laverty, B Coulter, D O’Hare (0-6, 5f).
Subs: R Mallon for Quinn, J Johnston (0-1) for Coulter, D Savage (0-1, f) for Madine
Referee: E Kinsella (Laois).
Highlights and analysis of all the weekend’s action on The Sunday Game from 22:00 on Sunday 23 June on RTÉ Two and RTÉ.ie (Ireland only). Expert and fan reaction on Take Your Point from 18:00 on Sunday 23 June on RTÉ Radio 1 and RTÉ.ie (Worldwide).