Jordan Owens goes extra mile to complete Crusaders fightback
Crusaders 4 Ballymena United 3 (after extra time):Jordan Owens' extra-time winner broke Ballymena United's hearts as Crusaders booked their place in next month's NIFL League Cup final.
And there they will meet north-Belfast rivals Cliftonville in a repeat of last season's decider, which the Reds won 4-0.
Ballymena looked to have one foot in the final when they led 3-1 at half-time, after a hat-trick from David Cushley, but their dreams of making it to a first ever League Cup final went up in smoke.
Crusaders rallied in the second half with Declan Caddell's second goal of the game and a penalty from substitute Gary McCutcheon levelling matters before Owens struck the decisive goal eight minutes into extra-time.
Cushley opened the scoring on 24 minutes after Tony Kane whipped in a wicked cross from the right wing and he got in front of his marker to powerfully head home from the edge of the six yards box.
If that goal was a shock to the Crues they were stunned completely three minutes later when Cushley scored his second.
Gavin Taggart sent the ball along the edge of the box from the left wing and again Cushley stole in front of a Crusaders player to send a first time shot flying past O'Neill.
That strike woke Crusaders and within a minute they had pulled a goal back.
The Ballymena defence sat off as Caddell tried to send a cross into the goalmouth from the right. The initial cross was blocked and, at the second attempt, he sent the ball looping across goal and into the net off the inside of the far post.
The Sky Blues hit back and restored their two-goal lead seconds before half-time as Cushley completed a 21-minute hat-trick. He chased Allan Jenkins' flick-on, got between Leeman and Craig McClean as he burst into the box, beat O'Neill to the ball and poked it into the net.
Crusaders manager Stephen Baxter threw striker Gary McCutcheon and winger Paul Heatley into the action at half-time and both would have an impact on the game, but not before Cushley could have put it out of the Crues reach on the hour mark when he latched onto Mark Surgenor's pass and struck the base of the post with a first-time shot.
They were left to rue that missed opportunity as within 10 minutes Crusaders were level.
First McCutcheon's free-kick right on the edge of the box – awarded for a hand ball by Thompson – crashed off the crossbar and Caddell reacted quickest to head home from a couple of yards out.
McCutcheon then scored the equaliser himself from the penalty spot, sending Dwayne Nelson the wrong way as he stroked the ball into the bottom left corner after Heatley had been fouled by Kane.
Ballymena could have won the game in stoppage time when Alan Teggart shot wide when he had time to take a touch and pick his spot. That miss meant extra-time and, in the end, Ballymena contributed to their own downfall as Crusaders sealed their place in the final eight minutes in.
Ballymena won the ball back from a Crues' attack but Nelson and Johnny Taylor got in a terrible mess and conceded a corner. Morrow swung it into the box and Owens powered home a header from inside the six yard box.
CRUSADERS: O'Neill, Magowan, Leeman, Coates, McClean, E McAllister (McMaster 103 mins), Morrow, Caddell, Snoddy (McCutcheon 46 mins), Hanley (Heatley 46 mins), Owens. Subs: Cleary, D McAllister.
BALLYMENA UNITED: Nelson, Kane, McCullagh (Ruddy 46 mins), Taylor, Stewart, Thompson, Surgenor (Davison 99 mins), G Taggart, Jenkins, A Teggart (Dolan 103 mins) Cushley. Subs: Addis, Liggett,
Referee: Colin Burns (Newtownabbey)